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Homeless shelter residents find ingredients for success with restaurant job

The lunch hour rush at Five Guys Burgers and Fries' newest restaurant in Largo is about to kick off and general manager David "Ram" Ramirez is giving his employees the usual pep talk.

The hamburgers practically sell themselves, but that doesn't mean Ramirez, a former military police officer, is about to let his staff slack off.

"Let me hear the six P's," he calls out.

The employees, a motley crew of teenagers and homeless men and women putting their lives back together, shout back at him what has become this burger joint's mantra: "proper planning prevents piss poor performance."

"All right," he yells. "Who wants it?"

When Catholic Charities opened Pinellas Hope in December, county leaders stressed that the outdoor shelter was an experiment. It would attempt to answer an age-old problem: How do you help people who might not be able or willing to help themselves?

Ramirez doesn't know what the solution is, but he has some ideas.

In February, a few weeks before the restaurant opened, Ramirez set out to hire a staff. He noticed a group of people wrote the same address on their applications. He asked around and found out they were all homeless and living at Pinellas Hope.

Ramirez, a man of Christian faith, decided to give them a chance.

"I told them, 'I'm tough. I will set the bar this high and I will always set the bar this high. If you plan to succeed, then you will,' " he said. "I don't fire people. People fire themselves."

After two weeks, only three employees remained of the seven Pinellas Hope residents he initially hired.

One quit after complaining that the music the staff played while cleaning up was too loud. Two people decided they would rather stay at Pinellas Hope and watch television than show up for work one day. Another was fired after he showed up for work seemingly intoxicated.

But those who chose to stay and work thrived.

John Plein became homeless last year after he was arrested and accused of stealing from a Target store. He moved into Pinellas Hope in December determined to start over.

For two months stress consumed Plein as he searched for a job, but few people were eager to hire a homeless man with a criminal record.

He was hired at Five Guys right away.

"I was so relieved, I was on the verge of tears," said Plein. "A lot of stress was lifted off my shoulders."

Life isn't perfect now. Sometimes he gets confused by the fast-paced environment of the kitchen. Ramirez tells him he needs to move more quickly.

The constructive criticism only pushes Plein to work harder.

"I tell myself 'I have got to do this,' " he said. "I can't just sit around and do nothing."

At least one Pinellas Hope resident has already been promoted.

Linda Greene, a former property appraiser, moved to Florida five years ago to be closer to her parents in Fort Myers. When her mother died in 2004, she became depressed and couldn't find work.

In 2007, a friend lured her to Clearwater with the promise of a free place to sleep and a job. The job turned out to be a day laborer position. The place to live was Pinellas Hope.

Greene was appalled, but she decided to tough it out, save some money and get back on her feet.

"You are sleeping in a tent. It's cold. It's freezing. It's mortifying," she said. "I figured if this was the bottom of the bottom, this is where I had to start to work my way up."

In February, Greene learned there was an opening at Five Guys and went to apply.

Then Ramirez announced he would interview all Pinellas Hope residents at once to save time.

Embarrassed to be lotted in with the other homeless job applicants, Greene fled, convinced it would be better to find another job where she wouldn't be pigeonholed. But she cooled down, returned to Five Guys that afternoon and was hired after the group interview.

Less than two weeks later, she was promoted to a manager-in- training position. She was sent to Washington, D.C., for a week for training.

Now, Greene is hunting for a new apartment and a decent used car. She is saving her paychecks and planning for a better life.

"I could be running my own store within a year," she said. "Everything is different now."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

>>ABOUT THIS STORY

Pinellas Hope

Pinellas Hope is an outdoor shelter off 49th Street N in unincorporated Pinellas County. The shelter opened Dec. 1 and will close in April. Until then, the St. Petersburg Times will run occasional profiles on the men and women who call Pinellas Hope home.

Homeless shelter residents find ingredients for success with restaurant job 03/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2008 5:35pm]
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