The last job Ida James had was seven months ago. The caseworker from Public Aid had sent her to shelve books in the library at Triton Junior College. For a while, James, a west-side resident, hoped the job would get her off welfare.

“It didn’t work out the way I wanted,” she says. “I liked the job, but when I asked [Triton] if I could become permanent, they said no. Public Aid has an attitude that you have to work for your welfare payments, so they get you a temporary job with some governmental agency. And they keep you on for a few months, and then they let you go. It’s frustrating because we want to work, but they don’t give you a chance.”

Now James is about to get another chance. Along with four other welfare recipients–Sandra Dent, Hattie Wormley, Shirley King, and Kimberly Scott–she’s formed Purrfect Services, a cooperative home- and office-cleaning business. They’re determined to get off welfare the hard way: they plan to work their way out.

“Nobody is giving us nothing,” says Hattie Wormley, who at 53 is the senior member of the crew. “We can do this business. We all know how to clean and scrub. We’re gonna do it right.”

Pat Wright, the economic-development planner with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development, helped the group get started. She says “It will be tough. They have no start-up capital, and they want to be entrepreneurs. The whole notion of entrepreneurship is self-exploitation. You have to sacrifice now to gain later. It’s a long haul, and I hope they make it.”

The venture was the idea of Cynthia Williams and Deborah Gilliam, staff workers for the Austin People’s Action Center, a west-side community and social-service organization. Among the other programs APAC sponsors are a young moms’ counseling service and a shelter for homeless mothers and their children. The more Williams and Gilliam talked to the women who passed through their doors, the more they heard the same lament: few skills, no access, and lousy luck.

“You can get caught in a rut,” says Sandra Dent. “You want to work, but you can’t find a job. You’ve got kids. The years catch up on you.”

Dent was raised on the west side in a welfare family. She saw North Lawndale burn during the riots of 1968, when she was just a girl. She attended Marshall High School. She vowed to stay off welfare; it was a promise she couldn’t keep.

“I quit school when I was 17,” Dent says. “That was foolish, but I did it. I had my first child at age 19. I tell you, I had no plans to go on welfare and then I had no choice. It was like history repeating itself–what with my mother. But what could I do? I had to feed my family. The thing is I have skills: I can type. I can write. I just can’t get a break. There are no jobs around here.”

Born and raised in Mississippi, Hattie Wormley and her husband moved to Chicago in 1957. “I’m country,” she says. “I can milk a cow, plant a garden, make butter–you name it. I came to Chicago because I followed my husband here. He was looking for work, and he wound up at the Pepsi-Cola factory over on 51st Street. My first job here was in a textile factory on 40th Street–we were living on the south side then. After that I worked in an upholstery factory.

“I didn’t plan to go on welfare. I was forced to go on welfare when my husband left me and I had to raise six kids. I love to work. I get up in the morning and go all day. That’s the way it is with country folks. Country people don’t lay down. If you sit down, you get lazy and you might not get up.”

Williams, Gilliam, and Marjorie Clifton, a former APAC staffer, chose the five crew members–who range in age from 21 to 53–from a group of applicants.

“We were looking for certain characteristics–like dependability,” says Gilliam. “We had a set of criteria. They had to write a paragraph: why do you want to be part of this program? They submitted a resume. We visited their homes. That was important because we wanted to see the kind of standards they kept on their own.”

With funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, APAC hired Wright and her colleague Deborah Bennett to train the women.

“What we wanted to do was take the women–step by step–in developing a business,” says Wright. “What is your market? Who are your competitors? How many hours will you have to work to meet your goals–that kind of thing.”

They settled on Oak Park as their target. For one thing it was close–all of the women live on the west side. Most important there were relatively few competitors, unlike the north side and the affluent North Shore, where several cleaning services already operate.

“We looked at census information,” says Wright. “We wanted to know how many households in Oak Park had incomes over $20,000 and how many consisted of working men and women. That last category is important because if both the man and woman in a household work, there’s a good chance they’ll need cleaning help.

“Then we called other companies in the area to find out what they were charging. We wanted to be competitive, but we also wanted the women to make a decent wage.”

Indeed, there was a good deal of haggling over how much they should charge. “We didn’t want to exploit ourselves,” says Wormley. “But we wanted people to use our business. We know there’s a lot of competition. You’ve got everything from cleaning services to individual Polish ladies and Spanish ladies.”

To clean a home or apartment, they charge an hourly rate of $10, and a minimum charge of $30. For businesses and real estate companies, they charge $50 an hour. They hope to collect an hourly wage of $6 apiece.

“We tried to be realistic with our projections,” says Wright. For the first year they estimate sales of $31,740 and $27,524 in expenses, leaving a profit of $4,216. Since the expenses include salary–a total of $18,720–the women can split the profit any way they want. Wright says, “They can divide it among themselves, or they can plow it back into the business, buying new vacuum cleaners or whatever.”

That means–if all goes well–the five women will each take home roughly $3,700 a year in salary, not enough to disqualify them from welfare.

“The second year they hope to increase sales to $62,250, expenses to $47,648, and profit to $14,000,” says Wright. “That gives them some money in the bank. That gives them some breathing room. By then they might be able to break their tie to APAC and go on their own. Maybe they can rent their own space and hire their own manager, instead of depending on APAC staff. At least they would have a nest egg. And they will be making enough money to get off of welfare.”

In the third year, projected sales are $108,680 and expenses $106,000; the profit will go down to about $2,000.

“Their profit goes down because their expenses are up,” says Wright. “They’ll have a manager, an office. They hope to be paying their own medical benefits. In a perfect world, they won’t need as much profit.”

Of course, to make that money they’re banking on a rapid increase in productivity. “We figure they’ll have 483 three-hour jobs in the first year,” says Wright. “Then 998 in the second, and 2,123 in the third year. That’s a lot of jobs. It breaks down to 5.8 a day. If you break it down to regular or weekly customers it’s not so scary. Think of it this way: if they can get seven regular customers that have them come in every week, that’s 364 jobs right there.”

Their biggest opportunity, however, is in real estate turnover. That means cleaning units as one tenant moves to make way for another.

“The annual rate of housing turnover in Oak Park is 25 percent,” says Wright. “That’s pretty high. In one year, over 10,000 rental apartments have move-ins and move-outs. Those apartments have to be cleaned for the new tenants, which could mean a lot of work for Purrfect Services. We only project them doing 145 apartment turnovers a year for the first two years and over 200 in the third year. We’ve underestimated that market in our projections, but if there’s room for Purrfect to grow–that’s where it will be.”

On this front, Purrfect has made contact with the Residence Corporation, a not-for-profit housing service in Oak Park, as well as the Oak Park Housing Center.

So far business is slow. They’ve had a few jobs–maybe ten–but mostly they’re still getting their name out. Their logo is a cat with a broom over its shoulder, designed by Wormley’s son Tony. “The cat was Shirley’s idea,” says Gilliam. “They’re meticulous animals. The ‘purr’ in Purrfect suggests a cat that’s clean and contented, like our customers will be content.”

For the moment, Gilliam drives the women from job to job in her car. Ultimately, the women want to buy their own van.

“I know some folks don’t think we’ve got a chance,” says Wormley. “But we’re ready; we’ve got something to prove. People think that folks on welfare don’t work–that’s a lie. We’re no different than anyone else. We’ve been working all our lives: cooking, cleaning, raising kids. Now it’s time to get something for it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.