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Block’s First Step improves lives

April 22,2015

via Atlanta Business Chronicle

By Nicole Bradford

With a career of successfully building businesses under his belt, Greg Block decided to take a new approach to a very old problem.

Block, this year’s recipient of Central Atlanta Progress’ Turner Downtown Community Leadership Award, has helped thousands transition out of homelessness by helping provide them with sustainable income.

While other agencies provide short-term solutions such as food and shelter, Block’s nonprofit staffing firm First Step both secures employment for those able to work, and helps those with disabilities access Social Security and other benefits.

“I love this work, because we have such a tangible result,” said Barbara Peters, First Step’s CEO for seven years.

She recalled one of First Step’s clients who had stopped going to church while on the streets.

“He told me he was ashamed, because he couldn’t put a dollar in the collection plate,” she said. “Now, he says he not only goes, but volunteers. He said, ‘I wanted to be a part of it, and now I can be.’ That’s what Greg created. This didn’t just put a roof over that man’s head; it changed his life.”

She describes Block as a visionary who thinks big. “From a community standpoint, what he’s done is a really practical solution,” she said. “For the people we serve, we’ve ended homelessness for them. The people who got approved for benefits or who went to work, they’re now contributing and spending.”

Born in Chicago, Block grew up watching his mother, a child psychologist, volunteer for nonprofits supporting children’s causes and ultimately start her own nonprofit focused on children’s issues. “I had always hoped that by the time I was 40, I could be able to give back with both time and finances,” he said.

In 2006, at 40, Block invested $500,000 toward solving the problem of homelessness for as many people as he could reach. The central organization theme, Block says, is connecting the homeless with a source of sustainable income.

“If you come in and you can work — and about 50 percent are ready to work — we have a job for you,” he said. “If you come in the door and are disabled, and often this may be mental disabilities — these are the ones suffering the most, sleeping in doorways on days like this — we have a group that helps those folks get SSI or disability insurance, and place them in supportive housing.”

About 20 employees, many of whom are former government employees who understand how “the process” works, while others are experienced social workers, assist those who turn to First Step. Those ready to work are provided with training, transportation and equipment such as work boots.

While these workers need more of an investment, they often prove much more eager for employers, Block said.

“If you drag yourself off the street, get into a recovery program, have accountability, you’ve taken those basic steps,” he said. “Those folks are really focused on not going back where they came from. They want to do a good job. They don’t want to go back, and that’s a pretty powerful motivation compared to typical temp staff employees. Our workers are fantastic and the employers love them.”

The average homeless person costs his or her community about $40,000 per year in medical services that are often emergency room visits, incarceration and foster care for up to 13 percent of homeless children. “We can take a $40,000 cost and turn that into a taxpayer,” Block said.

Looking ahead 10 years, Block envisions First Steps in 15 cities, employing 20,000 per day as well as helping those unable to work access benefits.

Today, Block spends much of his time on strategic planning, as well as developing new customers.

“He’s a serial entrepreneur who has done well in business, but took the time years ago to say, ‘I want to do something in a space that needs my talent,’” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. “He created a nonprofit that has grown and made a serious impact in a very important issue, and he’s done it with no fanfare or applause. A lot of people don’t even know he’s associated with it. We wanted to recognize someone who has made a contribution for all the right reasons.”

Block is both charitable and intense, a rare combination, Robinson said. “He’s impatient to make the world a better place, and we need more people like that to solve the issues we confront every day.”