In an unusual deal, First Step Staffing, a nonprofit staffing company from Atlanta, has purchased the Philadelphia operations of the for-profit On Time Staffing with the goal of using the staffing firm to employ homeless individuals and people recently released from prison.

"There are a lot of people who are homeless or have just gotten out of jail, or prison, and really want to work," First Step chief executive Dave Shaffer said Thursday. "We're the link to allow that to happen."

First Step's objective is to replicate what it did in Atlanta, where in late 2015 it bought a staffing firm and gradually filled positions that became available with people from its target population. Currently, about 750 people who were homeless when they came to First Step are working every day. In addition, several hundred more have moved into full-time jobs since the end of 2015, Shaffer said.

The group, which expects to have $25 million in revenue this year in Atlanta, will work through Philadelphia social services agencies, such as Broad Street Ministry, Project HOME, and Impact Services, to find individuals to fill the 700 light-industrial jobs it acquired Jan. 2, when it bought a portion of Cherry Hill-based On Time Staffing's Philadelphia operations.

First Step's goal is to employ 500 homeless men and women in Philadelphia in the first year and more than 1,000 by year three. The Philadelphia Health and Human Services Department said 5,693 people in the city experienced homelessness in 2017, of which 4,737 were sheltered and 956 were on the street.

"We think it's a very important step," said Mike Dahl, executive director of Broad Street Ministry, which he described as the front door for vulnerable people, including many suffering from deep poverty, homelessness, and hunger, with the goal of helping them return to productive stability.

"Having a temp agency that is focusing on people that have significant barriers and knocking those barriers down is going to be a really critical piece of the equation," Dahl said.

Barbara Hadley, Project HOME's vice president of education and workforce development, called First Step a welcome addition to homeless services in Philadelphia. "What we like about it is it provides rapid connections to jobs," she said. "It's quick. Because they are a staffing agency, they have a stable of jobs and they can provide rapid connection."

First Step also provides related services, such as job coaching and transportation.

When First Step decided to expand to another city, Philadelphia rose to the top of the list thanks largely to the efforts of Reinvestment Fund, a community development lender that learned of First Step through its office in Atlanta. Andy Rachlin, a managing director at Reinvestment Fund, introduced First Step to the Barra Foundation and Eva Gladstein, Philadelphia's deputy managing director of health and human services, he said.

"They took the ball and ran with it," Rachlin said.

To pay for the acquisition and have working capital to start operating, First Step borrowed $4.85 million from Reinvestment Fund and three other community development institutions, and $525,000 from about 10 members of the Investors' Circle's Philadelphia chapter. Shaffer also said First Step received grants totaling more than $300,000 from Barra and the Fels Fund.

"It's very unusual," Rachlin said. "We've never financed anything quite like it, but it makes a ton of sense."

Staffing companies are machines built to put people in jobs. "If you can take that machine and point it toward a social objective, it has a lot of power," he said.