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May 4, 2018

Fairhaven Lawn Care social enterprise helping to end homelessness through employment

Photo of Left: Shannon (Fairhaven employee); Right: Eddie Rapp (Director, Lutheran Social Services’ Fairhaven Lawn Care)
Left: Shannon (Fairhaven employee); Right: Eddie Rapp (Director, Lutheran Social Services’ Fairhaven Lawn Care)

Eddie Rapp founded Fairhaven Lawn Care in 2008 to provide jobs and housing to the homeless in Lancaster. Four years later he launched Patriot Pride Painting Co. to do the same for homeless veterans. Fairhaven provides residential and commercial lawn care throughout Central Ohio and Patriot Pride provides residential and commercial interior and exterior painting and related services.

Seeing the population in Lancaster’s homeless shelters growing, Eddie believed the solution would be found by guiding shelter clients to a more stable life grounded in responsible employment that provides enough income and support for them to rent and maintain their own home. Each employee has a case manager that helps deal with the stress of channeling new income away from former dependencies and toward habits of saving, paying rent and home management. It has a success rate of more than 70 percent of clients permanently housed and employed or transitioned to an outside employer after one year. We talked with Rapp about how he achieved this success. A version of this interview first appeared in Columbus Business First in April 2018.

What inspired you to start a social enterprise instead of a conventional business?
I have been a director with Faith Mission of Fairfield County for almost 13 years, so I have a lot of experience working with the homeless population. One day I saw we were paying contractors to paint or mow our grass for all of the Lutheran Social Services buildings, including my own. I thought, why not start our own business and use our mission services to back it up? As we work on fulfilling our mission, we are putting our clients to work and helping them obtain permanent housing, build self-esteem, and ultimately lead to a better job and self-sufficiency.

What is your social impact and how do you create it?
Our impact is to employ as many shelter clients as we can and to place as many in housing as we can. For us permanent housing means having one’s own place with a lease and no longer in the shelter system. We work with clients to make them ready for the responsibilities of renting and maintaining a home. For the first three years, we had to do a lot of outreach to landlords to build a trusting relationship that our clients would be good tenants. We have some failures from time to time but we continue to work with the landlords. Our success rate for our veterans is 88 percent. Now we are fortunate to have landlords that reach out to us to fill vacancies.

Starting a new business is hard. What is the biggest obstacle you had to confront?
The hardest part was getting around misconceptions about the homeless. It took us three years to figure out the best way to promote the business. Starting with lawn care, we first pushed “hire the homeless,” but to little success. Then we decided the mission and job quality were the right selling points so we shifted from just leaving estimates to having conversations with potential customers. Initially painting was the easier sell because ‘veterans’ sells in a way ‘homeless’ does not. For painting we started doing mostly exterior jobs and then, as positive referrals made customers more at ease, we added interior painting. At first people said “but they are homeless so are they going to steal from me or threaten me?” I think once people realized that we have a Lutheran Social Services supervisor leading each crew and that we conduct background checks, drug screens, etc., their misperception of danger eased. My answer to a lot of these people is to ask them if they are asking other lawn care or painting companies these same questions, which they aren’t. I explain that the difference is that we are up front regarding who we hire and what our mission is. Once we get through that, many people come to understand and appreciate our mission.

What is your impact on your community?
Moving folks out of homelessness and substance dependency is central, but opening minds in the community about homelessness is just as significant. It is now rare for us to get questions from potential customers about the dangers of having a homeless person cutting their lawn or painting their house. Now we have customers who no longer feel the need to be home while we work. I believe our two companies allow customers to see a more true side of homelessness. We are also introducing them to the idea of giving back to the community through their purchases. In today’s society there are a lot of charities asking for money, but with a social enterprise, they are able to hire us for a job, receive a needed service, and give back to their community.