Less than two years ago, Juan Johnson, 48, was losing everything that mattered to him.
He was out of work and struggling with an addiction to alcohol. Worst of all, he was cut off from his fiancee, the woman he knew was his soul mate.
Earlier this week, sitting in the lobby of Fresco Community Market in Hermon, where he’s worked as a stock clerk since December, Johsnon talked about the long process of getting it all back.
"I had some things in my life that had went wrong,” he said. “Things that led me in the wrong direction--I needed some direction to get me on track."
Johnson’s journey began at the L.A. Mission, a downtown shelter and rehabilitation center serving the homeless of Skid Row. He spent a long year in the mission’s “Fresh Start” program, through which he received food, shelter and the structure necessary to kick his addiction to alcohol.
After the year was over, Johnson entered the mission’s “Work Start” program, which gives mission residents a chance to reintegrate into the workforce while living in the shelter.
To his surprise, Fresco Community Market owners Helena Jubany and her husband, Jon Murga, almost immediately offered Johnson a job.
“It was good to get back to work,” he said. “I'd been out of work almost a couple of years. It’s been a real blessing to work here.”
Johnson was hired through the Fresco Community Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Fresco Community Market.
Murga explained that the purpose of the nonprofit foundation is to reinvest in the market’s surrounding neighborhoods, while taking advantage of its tax-free status to maximize the amount he’s able to contribute to the community.
In addition to paying for the salaries of the 11 Fresco Community Market employees who were hired through the L.A. Mission’s “Work Start” program, the foundation will also be used to distribute 15 to 20 percent of the market’s annual earnings toward community projects
Murga said the efforts of the nonprofit foundation are designed to put some actual weight behind the “community” in Fresco Community Market.
“Without [the foundation] we wouldn't be able to say we were giving back to the community in a meaningful way,” he said.
As for what some may call the risk he’s taken in hiring men like Johnson--men with the kind of histories that exclude them from finding work almost anywhere else--Murga describes it as part of the business model.
“Life is a risk,” Murga said. “You have to manage that risk."
Murga’s risk has paid off.
He’s retained 11 of the 14 L.A. Mission residents he hired back in December before he opened Fresco’s doors to the public and customers have had nothing but sterling reviews of Fresco’s service and atmosphere, he said.
Ivan Perez--a La Crescenta native who ended up on Skid Row after his addiction to drugs and alcohol earned him a prison stay--said interacting with customers at Fresco is now the best part of his day.
“You got to understand, there was a part of my life when I was isolated from people. I couldn't look someone straight in the face without feeling like they were judging me,” he said. "To be able to look someone in the face and hold my head up high? I really don't have the words to explain the joy it gives me to be here and for people to come up and ask me for help and just look at me like a regular person. They're not judging me for where I came from or who I was."
Perez, 42, said he is aware of just how rare an opportunity he’s been given, especially considering how negatively most employers react to applicants with criminal records.
“Jon knew people had backgrounds and records and he was willing to look past that and give people a chance,” he said. “In today's world, you don't find that too often. There's a lot of guys here who probably wouldn't be employed if not for Jon.”
Johnson, too, said he knows he’s got too much on the line to not make the most out of his job at Fresco.
Shortly after being hired, he got back with his fiancee.
As good as it felt to be working again after years away from a steady job, reuniting with his soul mate was even sweeter, he said. They’re planning to tie the knot by the end of the year.
“It had been like two years since we had seen each other. It was awesome. We knew we were always meant to be together, but we had that outside entity that was blocking us from completing what we had to complete,” he said. “I knew when we got back to together, that would complete us and nothing would stop us from there. It's been lovely ever since.”