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At Nashua soup kitchen, Tom Lopez is the unemployment slayer

Union Leader Correspondent

February 20. 2013 10:55PM
Tom Lopez of Nashua goes through donated work clothes in the attic of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter. Anyone looking for work can come to Lopez for help, though it's required for those staying at the shelter. (SIMON RIOS)

NASHUA -- FOR THOSE AT the bottom of the pecking order in today's economy - the unemployed - landing a job can be the hardest and most pressing of life's necessities. That's what drives Tom Lopez.

As head of the Employment Education program at the Nashua Soup Kitchen, Lopez identifies employment as poverty's Achilles' heel.

For Lopez, an Eagle Scout and native of Hanover, advocacy work is the centerpiece of his life. He sits on the boards of four nonprofits, travels regularly on relief missions to Honduras and is finishing a master's degree in mental health counseling at Rivier University.

Four years ago, Lopez, 31, took over the program, which offers one-on-one vocational counseling, employment preparation, job searching help, and job retention and development.

Whether it's providing a decent button-down shirt for an interview, helping a client get a job reference or determining the roots of their joblessness, Lopez spends his days helping people get jobs.

"The soup kitchen's mission is to promote independence, as well as end homelessness and feed the hungry," he said. "We don't want to just provide shelter to people with no supports or end goal in sight."

New Hampshire's unemployment rate stands at 5.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 14th lowest in the country and second in New England behind Vermont. In spite of the rosy statistics, things look different from behind Lopez' desk in the attic of the soup kitchen on Chestnut Street.

Lopez said that in Nashua, where the economy is largely centered around retail, younger people often end up with jobs that are not secure.

Though not everyone who's homeless is unemployed, losing a job is often a first step to losing a home. Lopez said homelessness doesn't happen suddenly; it results from a gradual slide, from six months to a year or longer, where people try everything to prevent eviction.

When that fails, some are able to move in with friends and family. And for the ones without a net to catch them, the soup kitchen's 30 beds can be an alternative.

"But shelters are a limited commodity," he said.

So non-action is not tolerated at the shelter. There is a limited number of beds available, and they are for people working to better their lot.

Required to meet with Lopez weekly, shelter residents identify the factors that led to their homelessness, then develop a strategy to get out. They check in, assess their goals, strategize and identify the steps to finding a job. Then it's up to them to execute.

"We're very conscious that taxpayers are putting money into a program here that needs to work," he said. "We can't be another program that doesn't use its money responsibly."

The employment program is funded largely by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's utilized within the Continuum of Care, a coalition of agencies in Greater Nashua that represents the gamut of services.

Aside from economic fundamentals, Lopez believes what makes it hardest for many people looking for work is the psychology of defeat.

"Your confidence is shot," he said, referring to the feeling of losing a job. "You were just told you were no longer needed - it's a shot to the ego that can't be underestimated."

He encourages people not to focus on the bigger problems: the stubborn unemployment rate, the job that's out of reach, the state of the economy. Instead he pushes them to focus on the most realistic job prospects and what it will takes to get the offer.

When people have dark spots on their record, like felonies or long periods of unemployment, it's a matter of finding an employer less likely to discriminate for those things. Lopez said that because Nashua has a comparatively robust job market, it's possible to explore different options, even if that means going into a new field.

"A lot of industries have cross-applicability," he said. "If you've been at a CVS, you're describing a role similar to a waitress, a bank teller."

The program provides clients with job-tracking sheets to outline their progress. This allows them to compare different leads, for example, and decide when it's time to move on from a particular application. If progress isn't being made - the clients are filling out applications but aren't getting calls - they address the challenges.

"I never assume a person can't work or they don't want to work," Lopez said, adding that the point is to find solution and not to get bogged down in what's preventing success.

For those who have found jobs, the program stocks an array of donated work clothing, from nurse's smocks to steel-toe boots. He said the mere presence of the clothing is a positive sign for clients.

"It's really helpful to point out that, all of the things we have, (were given by people) so it could go to someone in need," Lopez said.

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