Downtown Eastside charity creates jobs for fortunate few

This collaboration with Garrett Hinchey (@garretthinchey) was first published on the UBC Graduate School of Journalism website, the Thunderbird. Check it out there if you want the full experience – plus, a lot more Vancouver stories from my colleagues.

Halfway down a sunlit alley off Vancouver’s East Hastings Street, Sandra finds what she’s been searching for. She calls out to her partner, Linda, and walks over to the prickly collection of used needles nestled among yard waste and road sweepings. She gingerly deposits the dangerous syringes in a plastic container, counting them aloud as she does. She counts nine, and the pair moves along.

Sandra and Linda work for Mission Possible Neighbours, a social enterprise and registered charity based in the Downtown Eastside. The organization tries to remove barriers to employment for the area’s residents by providing short-term work and training. Its mission statement is to transform lives through meaningful work, while providing a salary in the process.

Mission Possible has achieved remarkable success in its efforts. That work it provides, though, is only available to a tiny fraction of the neighbourhood’s troubled residents.

Sandra and Linda work their way down an alley off the 600 block of East Hastings Street.

Like many programs before it, Mission Possible has discovered that the road to positive outcomes starts by allowing in only the people most likely to do well. A rigorous front-end selection process weeds out participants who aren’t likely to be ready to join the workforce after their time at Mission Possible is up, so many Downtown Eastside residents need not apply.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” explains Brian Postlewait, Mission Possible’s executive director and CEO.

“If you try to create a one-size-fits-all system, people are going to fall through the cracks. We have certain requirements that mean some people in the Downtown Eastside won’t meet the job profile. But for the people that do, it’s a great opportunity for them.”

That kind of “cream skimming” of potential participants has been debated by employment advocates and academics for years, who say that programs that skim the best applicants don’t produce any lasting benefits. But Mission Possible says it couldn’t succeed without that. And it offers more than the usual quickie job-training programs.

Needing vs. succeeding 

There have been many job-training efforts in B.C. and almost as many studies on them, examining everything from the benefits of providing income subsidies to job-placement programs.

One such report published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives argued that job-training and placement programs for people with multiple barriers to employment can be problematic – suggesting that, in many cases, the people getting the most help are the people who need help the least.

“Programs were also rarely available to clients with multiple barriers, arguably the individuals most in need of training and employment supports,” wrote the report’s author, Shauna Butterwick, “because contractors could choose which individuals to take on. In order to maximize profits, contractors chose to work with the most employable clients, as they had the lowest ‘cost per unit.’“

The report, Help first, not work first, looked at a 2004 study of two B.C. job-placement programs, designed to shift responsibility for job placement from the government to private contractors. Mission Possible is not a contractor to the government – it takes no government money – but its goals are the same, as are its incentives. Instead, it receives the bulk of its nearly $800,000 budget from business associations and private donors

Mission Possible promotional materials say that its social enterprises are designed to help those who are “challenged by homelessness and poverty.” Those enterprises include a maintenance company and a soap-recycling company in addition to Mission Possible Neighbours, which provides security services.

One of its recent “graduates” is a prime example of the kind of client Mission Possible is likely to take on — and the kind whom researchers see as problematic.

Not your stereotypical story

Lee Beauvais recently moved on from Mission Possible to work at a private security company, Westguard, a job that he got through the program. When he joined Mission Possible, Beauvais wasn’t homeless. He had been on welfare for “three or four years,” though, and was getting frustrated.

Lee Beauvais sports his new work hat behind Mission Possible.

Beauvais’ story isn’t a stereotypical sad Downtown Eastside story. He is a quiet, articulate man who is organizing a ball hockey league at the Carnegie Centre. He was homeless only once, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1991. He has computer skills, and likes to keep up “with the ins and outs of the Linux operating system.”

Regardless, Beauvais had been taking advantage of any resources he could to help him find a job, to no avail, until he spotted a poster for Mission Possible at a job fair. Today, just a week out of the program, he has more work than he wants.

“They called me for a shift at Langara today, but it was too last-minute,” he says.

“I gotta go see my opthalmologist at 2:30 and find out if they’ll let me play ball hockey.”

But even though someone like Beauvais seems functional enough to have found a job without a Mission Possible, its directors say that what they do is far different from the skimming or quickie training that other job programs have used.

For one, Beauvais, like all their clients, got the kind of support that will ensure he stays employed and doesn’t fall back into the Downtown Eastside.

“Most of these programs don’t have a lot of work experience built in,” says Postlewait. “It’s the weeks and months of working alongside someone who can give you some coaching and some mentoring… that gives you enough momentum to carry it on into other things.”

He also makes the point that Mission Possible has to function financially.

“If you can actually maintain a business where you’re hiring people who are deep in addiction, and you have a really low bar, well, great. But you can’t run a social enterprise that way. It’s going to be a job program that has to be supported by government grants.”

Barriers to employment

Beauvais is also working proof that Mission Possible’s participants aren’t just short-term beneficiaries, but are truly “work ready” before and after joining the program. Last year, nearly 60 per cent of Mission Possible work-readiness program participants found work elsewhere, stayed on long-term with Mission Possible, or returned to some kind of education or training, a number that CEO Postlewait is very proud of.

“A 50-plus-per-cent success rate… is a really positive outcome,” he says. “Whether we can sustain that over the long haul, we’ve got to keep working at that.”

Mission Possible’s front-end selection process is very similar to that of a conventional business. Potential participants must undergo a screening procedure in which their barriers to employment are identified and systematically dealt with. Only then will they be able to drop off a resumé.

“We go through several interview processes and try to continue to strain and filter through that,” says Matt Smedley, Mission Possible’s program director.

We can’t possibly employ all these people.

– Brian Postlewait, CEO

The process is designed to maximize the number of employees who can parlay their work with Mission Possible into long-term employment, as well as minimize risk for the social enterprise.

“It’s hard to determine in a really objective sense [who will succeed],” says Smedley. “But, if we allow people into our program, it’s something that we have to look for, and know that people are really committed to sticking it out.”

“We’re learning on the go,” says Postlewait. “We used to let people drop off resumés, and we’d get two or three resumés a day. We can’t possibly employ all these people.”

Finding a balance

For those who face serious challenges such as addiction and don’t meet the standards Mission Possible has set, there are alternatives. The organization offers unsuccessful applicants the opportunity to volunteer in various capacities, as well as pre-employment assessments designed to help those who don’t qualify for paid work.

“Anybody who comes in off the street, we’re willing to work with,” says Smedley.

Postlewait adds: “We’re just trying to create a culture of opportunity. Within the last few months… we put more of an effort in to say, ‘Let’s put them through a pre-employment assessment.’”

The text from Mission Possible’s 2012 annual report illustrates some of its core values (click to enlarge).

“Let’s talk to them, and let’s help them think about their goals… help them discover something about themselves. Where they may be able to get help.”

For those who do manage to get in the door at Mission Possible, the transformation can be addictive. Mission Possible becomes family for many of its participants and moving on is difficult.

“It was really comfortable,” Beauvais explains. “I didn’t have to face the scary outside world and 500 more job interviews.”

The program’s six-month limit for its training program, though, is essential to the purpose of bringing in new people for training.

In spite of this goal, Mission Possible has grown tremendously, adding 32 new part-time positions since 2009, when the organization had only five such jobs.

They do not expect to replicate that growth this year, although Smedley says they hope to move 20 “work-ready” people through the six-month program.

Despite the filtering of incoming participants, not everyone is able, or willing, to move on after completing their training. Sandra is one of them. She has been with the company for two years.

“I haven’t had no one give me a foot out the door yet,” she says cheerfully. “I plan to hang around as long as I can.”

But she’s one of the lucky ones. Though Sandra hasn’t made it back out the door yet, at least she made it in – unlike many of the Downtown Eastside’s most marginalized residents.


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