When customers enter The Men’s Xchange, they are greeted by the relaxing smell of essential oils and soothing music, such as Ray LaMontagne’s hit “Trouble.”
What appears upon first inspection to be an urban men’s boutique is, in fact, a thrift clothing store focusing exclusively on men’s business and professional attire, founder James Proby said.
“A lot of communities have several types of these shops to help women with clothing for an interview, but not for men,” he said.
The social enterprise is Proby’s way of helping lower-income and homeless men look sharp when they’re seeking work. His efforts join those of area nonprofits, government agencies and businesses that are dedicated to helping people find jobs.
Proby’s more than 10 years of professional experience in helping others find employment includes his tenure with the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, as well as working with graduating students at several area colleges.
“I’ve been lucky and blessed to work with some great teams of individuals,” he said. “We’ve had some really strong success rates employing people through high unemployment numbers and through low unemployment numbers and to have probably a career placement percentage above 80 percent.”
Sustainable employment is key to helping someone get off the streets, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless’ website.
“Unemployment, underemployment and low wages relative to rent are frequent causes of homelessness and burden millions of families with the risk of becoming homeless,” the organization said. “At the same time, individuals experiencing homelessness face obstacles to finding and maintaining employment.”
Dress for success
Not knowing what to wear — and not having the right clothes — can make job-hunting even more of a challenge.
“When you are hiring for an organization, you’re looking for someone who not only can do the job but who is a culture fit for your organization,” Proby said. “When you do that, you are looking at someone and you are judging them based on how … they choose to present themselves … because if you are going to show up at an interview poorly dressed or poorly groomed, you are not going to fit in to my organization.”
About nine months ago, the Colorado Springs native opened The Men’s Xchange, at 2123 Templeton Gap Road, to help men find appropriate interview attire.
“It ends up that we are the last stop on their journey,” he said. “Clothing has been the barrier to their next level of employment, and we want to make sure we’re helping remove that.”
Everything at Proby’s store is less than $40, which is what a customer pays for a suit, he said, adding sports jackets are $25 and shirts and slacks are $10 apiece.
An entry level suit at most department stores, such as Men’s Wearhouse, costs about $300, Proby said.
“You pay one-tenth the price, you get better service, and we walk through a complete fitting,” he said. “You also get a chance to know your dollars are staying in this community to help other men that are in a less fortunate way than you are.”
For every nine men who shop at the store, Proby is able to clothe a homeless or lower-income man at no cost.
“The more men who shop with us the more men we can help,” he said. “Every single person who walks through our doors gets provided the same experience.”
Since opening, Proby has clothed 14 lower-income or homeless men, who typically are referred by his nonprofit partners.
“One of those men was just last week, and we haven’t been able to connect with him since,” he said. “The other 13, though, have found employment since they left here. It’s great to be able to have that kind of impact.”
The first man Proby clothed for free always will stand out in his memory.
“He’s an artist in town who operates an art gallery and is a cancer survivor,” he said.
The man found himself in a financial position unlike any he had experienced before, Proby said.
“The individual was really recovering his life back from the place he had been,” he said. “He was getting help for his alcohol addiction and was just like, ‘I’m an artist, and I’m up-and-coming and literally I dress like I am homeless and need help.’”
Nearly eight months later, Proby has watched the artist’s career blossom.
“The fact that he is now doing artwork for the mayor and his stuff is posted all over the city and his gallery is thriving, it is amazing to be a part of that,” Proby said. “That’s what this store is all about for me.”
While Proby is busy helping dress lower income or homeless men, other efforts to help employ job seekers also are taking place with area businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.
Any business with job openings should be interested in the Pikes Peak Workforce Center’s efforts to help the unemployed find work, said Traci Marques, executive director.
“We are training their future workforce because there are more jobs available than people looking for jobs,” she said.
The center receives federal funding to help the hard-to-serve population in El Paso and Teller counties find employment, Marques said.
“Our mission is to connect work-ready job seekers with employer-driven services,” she said. “With that, there are a lot of unique programs and training opportunities that we have both for the young adult, which is ages 16 to 24, or the adult, which is ages 18 and over.”
One of the center’s notable successes, which is nationally known as a best practice, is its young adult Work Readiness Series, Marques said.
During the 2½-day workshops, students learn soft skills such as resumé writing, appropriate interview attire and talking with people, she said.
“We also talk about budgets,” she said. “You’ve got your first job but what do you do with your money … how do you budget your money?”
Eventually, the center places participants into paid internship programs, Marques said.
“We have about 80 companies locally that we work with that have these kids come in and actually get real experience,” she said. “We teach them and then they are able to practice what they learned.”
The hospitality industry utilizes many of the program’s students as interns, and later hires many, Marques said.
On average, Hotel Eleganté employs six to 12 participants each year in an effort to fill its ranks, general manager Ed Okvath said.
“I would say it’s an exciting program to be a part of because if one person is able to work their way out of poverty and off social welfare, that is a win,” he said.
There are several reasons the hotel participates in the center’s program, Okvath said.
“We are always looking for people who are looking for a job and are hard workers,” he said. “It behooves us to help those who are looking and want to try and get out of their current situations.”
Okvath also personally knows what it’s like to fall on hard times, he said.
“About 22 years ago, when I started the hotel business, I was on food stamps and childcare assistance,” he said. “It was nice for the hospitality business to take a risk on me and give me a hand up like we are trying to do for these young adults.”
All in all, it doesn’t matter what program or where the individual receives assistance, only that they achieve employment, Marques said.
“We all work with the people as a whole,” she said. “It’s really important, especially with young adults, we just give them attention. Some say they’ve never had anyone have faith in them until our program, and that’s important and just a great feeling.”