MIAMI — The three homeless men stand before well-groomed Frank Kelly, "America's Best Dressed Real Man" of 2007, according to Esquire Magazine. He's there to help them get work.
"Don't just tell me your strengths. Tell me a situation where you were able to implement that strength," Kelly tells them.
Two months later, each has a job.
The group is part of Project Vacant Streets, Kelly's initiative to get the homeless back on their feet one job at a time. Each participant undergoes a series of transformations — emotional, professional and physical. The idea is that in less than a month, they gain the confidence to land a job through the skills learned. Kelly says he has helped nine people find jobs in the nearly two years since he started.
Kelly, a 32-year-old product director at Johnson & Johnson, describes the program's candidates as everyday Americans. He said most are not mentally ill or drug addicts, they have just suffered from chronic homelessness.
"They have an incredibly difficult time getting back into the work force," Kelly said.
Kelly was born in Nicaragua, and his family moved to the Miami area when he was 2. His grandmother spent her life volunteering with churches and the homeless.
"People around me introduced me to the world of volunteering and philanthropy, but it wasn't until Project Vacant Streets that I had my own thing," he said.
Misconceptions about homelessness
As a second career, Kelly was already a motivational speaker, giving lectures at college campuses and work settings about leaving lasting impressions while achieving your goals. A friend suggested that Kelly speak at the Community Partnership for the Homeless in Miami, which each night houses about 700 of Miami-Dade County's estimated 4,300 homeless.
"My first reaction was what could I possibly convey to the homeless? I was almost afraid of walking into the shelter," he said. Once Kelly stepped inside the shelter, though, he said the room's energy convinced him that he needed to change Americans' misconceptions about homelessness.
In less than six months, Kelly put his idea into practice with help from his wife, who handles logistics and phone calls, and from friends and family who volunteer. Now he's thinking about trying to turn the project into a reality TV show.
The program starts with an open house at the homeless shelter. Kelly narrows a group of candidates, selecting three he sees have the potential to complete the program.
"I'm putting all but two of my marbles into Frank Kelly, him teaching me basically the science of how to get a job," Rice said.
Having picked the hopefuls, Kelly goes to work on getting them to work.
"Give some type of pitch for an interview. That gives you the confidence to walk in there with a positive attitude," Kelly tells the latest group during one of several mock interviews.
He critiques and refines their resumes — over and over. They get a makeover at a Target, with Kelly on hand to give advice about what's appropriate for work.
The final challenge is what Kelly calls the emotional change, with the candidates sharing their homeless experience during a speech to supporters and students at the University of Miami.
"America's biggest fear is speaking in public. So if these people can overcome that, then who is to say they can't overcome any interview?" Kelly said.
Some employers aren't willing to give Kelly's pupils a chance.
"A large majority shut their doors on our project. They just don't get it. They have these preconceived notions of America's homeless," said Kelly, who spends his lunch break calling contacts and sending out e-mails to help the candidates land an interview.
Several companies, however, have offered their services. Perry Ellis, the menswear line, has donated professional attire for candidates.
Kelly said he's spent about 1,500 hours and $8,000 to $10,000 of his own money on the project.
His payoff has been success stories like Rice, who was hired as a food server at the Eden Roc Hotel on Miami Beach. The program, Rice said, "brought me back to the living world."
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