Human Services

A Step to Freedom

Providing safe transitional living spaces and comprehensive support services
Kenya Croom distributing socks to men experiencing homelessness on Skid Row.

A Step to Freedom (ASF) provides justice-impacted individuals and people experiencing homelessness with a safe living environment and the support and resources needed to "take the first step to building a new future." NFF first partnered with ASF as part of the South Los Angeles Innovation Collaborative, where our Consulting team provided workshops and group coaching on nonprofit financial management.

In 2023, NFF also provided a $200,000 zero-interest bridge loan to ASF, helping them maintain their programs and keep their doors open to those in need, despite funding reimbursement delays worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Creating Safe Transitional Living Spaces

Kenneth Croom – a father, mentor, skilled boxer, veteran, entrepreneur, and community leader – founded ASF in the summer of 1991 after experiencing firsthand the need for resources and support when transitioning from incarceration. ASF’s motto, "take the first step toward building a new future," reflects its mission to provide safe transitional living spaces and comprehensive support services for people impacted by the justice system and/or homelessness.

In 2003, Kenneth’s daughter, Kenya Croom, took over ASF to carry forward his vision. In addition to providing a safe transitional living space with support and resources for people who have been impacted by the justice system and/or homelessness, ASF expanded to include wraparound services that help people establish self-sufficiency through trades, business ventures, and jobs as they transition to permanent housing.

Addressing the impact of health, economic, and racial disparities

The services AFS provides are more critical than ever as rates of homelessness continue to increase in LA County and the City of Los Angeles.

“People who are experiencing homelessness or substance use issues aren’t in that position just because of some big mistake they made,” Kenya shared. “There might be things they could have done differently, but these issues are rooted in systemic racism and redlining. That has had a big impact on health and poverty disparities.”

A recent report by the Los Angeles County Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion (ARDI) Initiative highlighted that Black people, who make up 30% of the homeless population in LA County despite being less than 10% of the overall population, are disproportionately affected by systemic and institutional factors such as rent burden, eviction, incarceration rates, and low median income.

“People are working and living in RVs and returning home to tents every day. The cost of living is just too high. We shouldn’t be criminalizing people in their experiences,” said Kenya.

Kenya is meeting with a small group of people in a park to provide blankets; one person is in a wheelchair, and two others are seated on cement benches.
Kenya Croom distributing blankets in Atlanta as part of ASF's Warm the Streets initiative, which has expanded nationwide to include Atlanta, GA, and Charlotte, NC.

ASF’s programs not only circumvent some of the barriers that people who have experienced homelessness and/or incarceration might face, such as access to re-entry documents, but also are designed to care for the whole person with services that support their growth and well-being. From mental health and substance use support to education and life skills management to vocational/career exploration and preparation, ASF’s clients are given the tools they need to achieve their goals and reclaim self-sufficiency.

Kenya shared a success story about her cousin, who was released from prison in 2019 and aspired to work for ASF. Recognizing his drive and capabilities, Kenya hired him and created a pathway for his growth within the organization, as he often expressed how he wanted to oversee his own site. "Once he started, he earned promotion after promotion. He kept advocating for himself, developing skill-sets and leadership abilities, and now oversees two sites," Kenya said. "We have the opportunity to give people second, third, and a hundred chances... however for many it takes for them to better their lives and connect to the grit they have inside."

Joining the South LA Innovation Collaborative

Funding this vital work is not without challenges. Even with government contracts in place, ASF has faced an all-too-common scenario where cash flow needs don’t align with the timing for reimbursements.

NFF first connected with ASF in 2021 as part of the South LA Innovation Collaborative to Impact Homelessness, where our Consulting team provided workshops and group coaching on topics such as strategic budgeting, financial storytelling, cash flow planning, and covering full costs to help leaders like Kenya navigate the nonprofit financial landscape.

“We’ve been blessed to have a lot of programmatic support, but to operate and serve 350 people a year is a huge administrative challenge. More support toward general operating funds and technical assistance is always needed,” said Kenya.

Kenya passing along blankets to volunteers to disseminate to people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row.
Kenya handing a blanket, toiletry kit, and some cash to man experiencing homelessness in downtown Los Angeles.

ASF recognized the need for additional funding sources that provide unrestricted revenue and developed an ambitious plan to build cash reserves and fundraise. Kenya has significantly grown the organization, increasing their revenue from $250,000 to $3.2 million in just a few years. ASF also expanded internal capacity by hiring key positions like a fiscal manager and dedicated fundraising staff, and they started providing additional beds in anticipation of payments from a new reimbursement contract.

NFF partnered with ASF in 2023 to provide a $200,000 zero-interest bridge loan, supported by the Hilton Foundation, that will help ASF cover ongoing organizational and programmatic costs while waiting for reimbursements from government contracts and other funding sources.

As Kenya reflected on the capacity building that ASF has undertaken over the past few years to support its growth, another common scenario came to light, which is that funders’ expected timelines for funded capacity building don’t always align with reality. Nonprofit leaders who are creating infrastructure for the first time must also navigate the operational and cultural aspects of organizational change – work that takes longer than many funders realize. Yet leaders are often under pressure to report back to funders on outcomes within a short timeframe. “Hiring people for a role that didn’t exist before takes time because building the role and doing the job are two different skill-sets,” Kenya shared. “It would be helpful if funders could be more flexible with their expectations about how long this work actually takes, which is years, not months.”

Exploring Permanent Housing

After providing interim housing for 30 years, ASF is preparing to expand into permanent housing, which would allow them to provide beds for more people coming from prisons, hospitals, or those experiencing homelessness.

ASF continues to look ahead and expand on the vision Kenneth had for a place of hope, second chances, and new opportunities. And Kenya is building on ASF’s legacy by creating pathways for her children to follow in her footsteps and help carry the mission forward.

“People who do the work on the ground at ASF are so close to these issues. Direct service isn’t the most high-paying job, and they should be lifted up and not torn down in any way,” Kenya shared. “Our people make me the proudest. They’re taking care of their families by doing this work, making a living wage, and growing.”

Want to learn more about how we partner with organizations like A Step to Freedom?

Visit the Consulting and Financing pages of our website.

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