Down But Not Out – Vancouver Pilot Project Helps Individuals Recovering from Substance Use Return to Work

Four social assistance recipients recovering from drug use worked for the City of Vancouver. How did it go?

Recovering from drug addiction is hard. Trying to hold down a job while recovering? Even harder. To investigate how juggling all this might be made easier for unemployed individuals recovering from substance use and ready and willing to work, the City of Vancouver Drug Policy Program designed and implemented a pilot project.

The plan was to have four individuals from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside alternate between working 40 hours with the City’s Waterworks and Sewage Operations one week and taking two five-hour job training sessions the following week. The schedule, intended to help these participants who had been out of the workforce build up the stamina for this tough physical work while at the same time providing each employer one full-time position, was to last 26 weeks, from April to December, 2007.

The project proved a moderate success and, as hoped, a few key program improvements became obvious. First, expectations need to be properly managed. The project participants were all pleased and excited to work for the City. Merely being identified as ‘ready to work,’ let alone being offered a real job with good pay, improved their self-esteem, they said. Still, while some recognized it as a work-experience project, others misunderstood that it would lead directly to permanent work for the City.

Second, less physically demanding City departments might make a transition back to work easier for future participants. Two of the four participants couldn’t complete the project, leaving within the first couple of months. Both found the physical full-time work too demanding so early in their drug-addiction recovery process. One individual returned to rehab and the other found a part-time job that made this life transition easier. But the other two participants who completed the study enjoyed the work and, more importantly, enjoyed working. They were pleased to be both learning and considered part of a work crew.

Third, the ‘job sharing’ aspect, where workers traded off weeks of work and classroom training, was tough for employers to manage. With differing capabilities, the participants couldn’t perform the same duties. When two participants left, they were not replaced, leaving the departments with two half-time positions.

In the end, this small project has big potential. While several aspects of the project need to be reviewed, it made a significant difference in the participants’ lives – the goal of any such program.

To read the full report, click here.