×

Pepperdine programs help some move from rags to riches

Los Angeles has the largest Skid Row in the country. And the county's most recent tally shows a homeless population of 44,359, a 12 percent increase in the last two years.

Homeless person in Los Angeles
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
Homeless person in Los Angeles

David Askew, Greg Williams and Arlene "Sam" Johnson used to live on Skid Row. All three have dug themselves out of that very deep hole. What's more, they are ambitious people who have created businesses. Theirs are start-ups which literally start at the bottom, with nowhere to go but up.

Helping them succeed is a microenterprise program at Pepperdine University. Professor Larry Cox said about 100 candidates from diverse backgrounds have made it through the application process over the last few years, and he estimates they've seen a 20 percent success rate.

"The surprising thing for me is how often these people are most interested in giving back," Cox said. "They want to make the money, they want to make the business, but really, at the end of it, they want to give back."

Read More A start-up aims to roll in the dough

Pepperdine originally provided funding for the start-ups, but Cox said the program's managers changed their minds: "What we found was that people were joining the program for the money and not to start a business."

He credits Banc of California with stepping up, not necessarily with direct funding, but by becoming the first customer for many of the enterprises. Pepperdine students also mentor the businesses.

There's no guarantee of success, but it takes courage and focus to make such a dramatic turnaround and come out of it with a dream.

"Entrepreneurship transforms peoples' lives," Cox said.

Here are three people going through the Pepperdine program.

David Askew: From streets to studio

David Askew is 46 years old. He came to California from Chicago in 2001 and soon got into trouble—"Crack cocaine, alcohol, you name it." Askew ended up going to prison, and after he was released, he lived on Skid Row for 12 years. The worst part?

"All if it," Askew answered, wiping away a tear.

In 2010, he decided to get clean and sober, and he checked into the Midnight Mission. For three years Askew worked his way through a program to stay off the streets. He began painting and showed real talent. At the mission he met someone from Pepperdine, who encouraged him to apply for the microenterprise program.

Read MoreWhy Google's investing in the over-50s

Askew now has a website, and he is selling his artwork.

"It's a hard field to get into," he said, "but I have the endurance and the patience to keep going through. It's going to be hard, but I'll make it."

Askew now also works as a drug counselor and property manager. He has used some of the proceeds of his artwork sales to help other homeless people. While Askew hopes to become a successful artist, he wants to use his gift to help the homeless on a much bigger level: "That's where the gift lies, to help other people."

Sam Johnson: No more homeless lunches

Sam Johnson didn't have an alcohol or drug problem. The mother of three held many jobs. However, in 2010, she ended up living in her mid-size, Ford Contour for six weeks with her children. She said they were escaping domestic violence.

"We'd just look like a vacationing family," she said. "We were swimming during the day, eating, picnicking, and then at night we'd grab food and eat on the beach. People didn't know that we'd creep to the car and sleep there. It was pretty scary."

After her money ran out, Johnson said she ended up at the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row. Eventually, she was connected with a nonprofit that helped her get a job and put her in touch with Pepperdine. Together with her children, Johnson came up with a business plan for Squishyfish.net, "an interactive platform for empowering children to live more meaningfully."

Read MoreTrader leaves Wall Street for the food truck business

The family speaks about homelessness at local schools, and they sell "S.H.A.R.E. packages" which include a reusable lunch bag. Eleven-year-old Adam Johnson is the company's "chief passionate initiator."

"When we were homeless," he said, "we were facing a lot of other little things, like the lunch I was given by the shelter was in a see-through sack. We were bullied about that." Now, for every S.H.A.R.E. package sold on Squishyfish, the Johnsons send one package to a shelter, so that a child there can go to school with a regular lunch sack instead of a clear plastic bag.

Sam Johnson explained that the name "Squishy Fish" was created when life on the street with her children was at its lowest point. "Every day after work I'd give them little squishies"—hugs—"and they became my little fishies."

Through her job, the family saved enough money to move into low-income housing, and Bank of California helped them launch the business by purchasing 150 Squishyfish packages in advance. The Johnsons exceeded their goal of $1,500 on Indiegogo.

"I was determined to succeed again," said Johnson, "and to pass that on to my kids."

Greg Williams: From '3 strikes' to businessman

Perhaps the most amazing comeback of all is that of Greg Williams, who started life with a cranial injury which disabled part of the left side of his body. When he was nine, his aunt died in the Jonestown massacre, and his family fell apart. "It seemed my parents stopped caring, and so did I," he said. "I followed with drinking, drugs, gangs, incarceration."

Williams ended up in prison for armed robbery at age 19. He spent the next two decades in and out of the penitentiary. Finally, in 2000, he was sentenced to 25 years to life under California's "three strikes" law after being caught with $5 worth of crack.

"That was a wakeup call times a thousand," he said. At some point in prison, Williams had a dream about his mother's old recipe for sweet potato pie. "I had the recipe, I had a good idea—the seed of an idea—but at that time I wasn't going anywhere, I had no parole date."

Read MoreStart-ups bet on crowdfunding to 'make it' in the US

In 2009, "I did what I've done two or three times before. I gave my life to Christ, but this time I meant it. ... I just asked Him to help me do something," Williams said. Three years later, California's three strikes law was modified, and soon Williams was free again. "Then I was homeless."

But Williams said he stayed off drugs, and like the others, he found a program on Skid Row that helped him move off the street. He learned about the Pepperdine program at church and decided to apply. "I thought, 'Why not?' I've got an idea," he said. "I'm not a businessman, so I need to learn about the business part of making pies."

He has since launched Queenie's Pies—"all natural, made from scratch, with love"—named after his mother.

Once again, Bank of California prepurchased his product, buying 100 pies.

"I've delivered 10 so far," Williams said.

When asked why anyone would take a chance on an ex-con with such a long and troubled past, he replied, "First, I had to believe in myself." He's surprised anyone wanted to help him, let alone a university like Pepperdine. "I didn't expect the warmth and the sincere caring for a person such as myself…I believe I'm a changed man."

When asked where he will be in five years, Greg Williams paused as if that sounds like an eternity.

"In a storefront bakery somewhere on Ventura Boulevard in the valley," he finally answered. "I saw myself as maybe working for somebody baking these pies, and them selling it, but for me to have my own business? No, no. It was a dream, and the dream came true."

Correction: Banc of California and Greg Williams were misspelled in an earlier version of this story.