About a month into Arlyn Zelaya's new job at Orlando-based BW Property Management Group, he went bowling with the owner (and his boss), Solomon Williams. That night, Zelaya decided to tell him something: He was homeless and living behind a church.
Williams wanted to see what Zelaya was talking about. At 9 or 10 p.m., the pair left the bowling alley and pulled into the Kaleo Ministries church parking lot. Behind the building, about 50 people were crammed in a tent encampment.
It was a tough thing to see, Williams says. He spent an hour talking to people in the area. "There were skilled laborers," he says, "living back there in tents, just not being given an opportunity." He decided that night in April 2019 he was going to find a way to help Zelaya--and as many others as he could.
Williams's BW Property Management Group provides home repair and maintenance services to about 2,200 properties in Orlando through a combination of in-house employees, contractors, and subcontractors. What began as an ad hoc effort to find unhoused people paid work over the years has turned into an employment initiative that has been transformative for some of its beneficiaries.
Williams says BW has trained and employed roughly 50 unhoused people in the past three years--and helped provide living spaces on occasion. Most recently, he started an initiative to build tiny houses and give them to anyone who lives on the 20-acre plot of land behind Kaleo Ministries, donating $120,000 to the cause between his own funds and the company's. The endeavors helped BW land on Inc.'s 2021 Best in Business list, which highlights companies that go above and beyond to make an impact in their communities.
"I feel my purpose is to help those who are less fortunate, or can't help themselves," says Williams.
A father's example
Growing up, Williams saw people come to his father, a pastor in Tallahassee who also worked construction and owned a carpet cleaning and installation business, asking for jobs. His father would find them paid labor building, cleaning, or doing lawn work. When Williams started his own business in 2008, he eventually found a way to do the same thing. Early on, he'd give work to unhoused people, often picking up laborers waiting for jobs in front of Home Depot. But, after that evening with Zelaya, Williams began working with the church to expand his efforts. "[My father] was a minister," Williams says. "But I found this to be my ministry right here."
Williams uses his in-house crews of painters and lawn care professionals for his charitable efforts. The most entry-level position is on the marketing team, where anyone who needs a day's work can hop in a van, go to a neighborhood, and flier houses for BW under the supervision of a marketing manager. Most people, Williams says, have cellphones, so the company tracks their progress with the MapMyRun app and pays folks with Cash App, a peer-to-peer payment app. They start at $10 an hour, but wages go to $15-plus an hour after training with the painting or lawn teams. After that, workers can progress to running their own crews and independently meeting with clients, and make $600 a week base pay. Williams says he hopes to inspire them to be entrepreneurial, and says the key to helping out people who are in tough situations is staying flexible.
He often helps find or pay for housing for folks who show up consistently, and will provide employees with security deposits and trucks. Zelaya says he's lost count of how many times Williams helped him out with rent when he was getting back on his feet. "We operate as if we're a nonprofit," Williams says, explaining that he prefers to use most of BW's profits for charity. "I learned from my parents that my reward will come from heaven," he adds. The company is on track to make between $1.2 million and $2 million in revenue in 2021.
Williams is hoping the tiny home initiative will give even more people living behind Kaleo the support they need: He plans on offering employment to those who are interested and will seek their assistance in the building of the homes. The homes will be free for people to stay temporarily. If a person or family should choose to live permanently in their tiny home, Williams plans to draw up leases.
Williams says he tries to invest in the people who come from Kaleo to work for him in other ways, too. He is trying to get everyone set up with a digital wallet to accept payment from the company, or help with things like groceries, Ubers, or hospital bills. Sometimes, he says, it's a matter of getting someone a hotel room and a place to sleep for the week, and talking to them about their lives. "I just listen," he says, and he'll follow up, especially if someone is struggling with mental health.
Zelaya is one of those employees who has moved up within the company and out of homelessness. To get away from a rough childhood growing up in Miami, Zelaya eventually moved to Orlando and started a lawn care business. But, after a divorce, he lost his home and his business, and wound up living behind the church and applying on craigslist to work for Williams. Three years after starting at BW, Zelaya remarried and owns his own home. "I went from living in a tent to now I have a three-bedroom house," he says. "If I hadn't had this opportunity ... I'd probably be in prison or not living." Zelaya now is a crew leader and works with BW clients semi-independently. He says he wants to stick around and help BW grow, especially its program for unhoused people.
And Williams has big plans for BW's future. The business can accept cryptocurrency as payment, and aims to establish a formal franchise program. (Currently, the company is "test piloting" franchises with independent contractors.) He says he's in talks with a publicly traded company for a possible merger.
"I'm just going to pour into the community until I can't do it anymore," says Williams.