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Artist Ken Foster sells his paintings in The Hastings Warehouse, a pub that he lives behind. Photo: Graeme McRanor.

Businesses strain to retain Downtown Eastside workers

Take a stroll through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and you’re unlikely to get far without encountering a bearded hipster shaking bourbon…

By Mike Wallberg , in Business , on March 20, 2013 Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A fixture in the Downtown Eastside, Save On Meats employs the hard-to-employ as part of its mandate. Photo: Jimmy Thomson.
A fixture in the Downtown Eastside, Save On Meats employs the hard-to-employ as part of its mandate. Photo: Jimmy Thomson.

Take a stroll through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and you’re unlikely to get far without encountering a bearded hipster shaking bourbon in a joint owned by either Mark Brand or Sean Heather – two local entrepreneurs with contrasting approaches to the community they inhabit.

They are both high-profile personalities who have successfully imported Portlandia-style chic into one of the city’s grittiest neighbourhoods.

And they’ve both struggled with the significant challenges of doing the right thing for the area’s poverty-plagued local residents — so-called “high-barrier” workers — who struggle to maintain employment for a variety of reasons, be they mental health or addictions issues, poverty or homelessness.

But Heather and Brand differ dramatically in their approach.

Keeping an open mind

Heather is the founder of Heather Hospitality Group, which owns eight bars, restaurants and cafes in the area. He employed a string of dishwashers from the neighbourhood five years ago in his restaurants. Each one in turn failed to show up for work.

He went through eight or nine workers over a six-month period, disrupting business and demoralizing the staff. Eventually, he gave up.

“It’s not an easy thing to do in our business,” he said. “A lot of the people down here have addiction issues, and putting them in front of alcohol is not good for them or for me.”

Heather does employ one man to clean the streets in front of his businesses and wash windows, hires locals to help with renovations, and has worked to accommodate the needs of the neighbourhood as he’s opened new ventures.

For example, he frosted a store window and built a locking gate into an alcove on East Cordova Street for “Maggie,” a homeless woman who previously slept in the doorway of his new Rainier Provisions café.

“To survive down here, you have to be flexible and to have an open mind.”

Showing up for work

Tammy Siu, co-owner of bistro Catch 122, went through a similar experience with two dishwashers she hired upon opening a year ago. Employees  showed up under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or arrived late or not at all, and could not be reached for lack of a phone number.

Artist Ken Foster sells his paintings in The Hastings Warehouse, a pub that he lives behind.  Photo: Graeme McRanor.
Artist Ken Foster sells his paintings in The Hastings Warehouse, a pub that he lives behind. Photo: Graeme McRanor.

“We wanted to give them an opportunity to be able to support themselves.  It’s difficult for them to get that opportunity… but it’s just too difficult,” said Siu, whose business overlooks the Woodwards project. “With any industry, you need people to show up, and to be in a state ready to work.”

So Siu has opted for the choice of many businesses along the Hastings corridor: hiring locals to do one-off jobs like washing windows, hauling boxes, painting trim, washing off graffiti or cleaning the streets.

The Hastings Warehouse, a bar that opened in recent months at 156 W. Hastings St., sells the art and contracts the window painting skills of Ken Foster, a local artist.  Foster lives in the parking lot behind the bar.

And Kane Ryan, the owner of lost + found café, a new coffee shop at 33 W. Hastings, who recently returned from four years spent doing philanthropic work in Mumbai, has also employed locals when possible.

This has included hiring window washers, donating bottles to local binners, and enlisting help in the renovation of his space.

Seeing past the stigma

But others say it is possible to do more than that.

Mark Brand employs over a dozen high-barrier people, along with a full-time community co-ordinator to help support them, Anna Farrant.

“I feel that once employers take a chance they will see that the ‘barriers’ are not barriers at all but equalizing qualities that we all face,” Farrant said, in respect of the issues that stop others from doing the same.

Save On Meats employs 15 high-barrier workers at the moment, mostly in the commissary kitchen on the second floor of the building where the prep happens for Brand’s collection of restaurants, including the diner downstairs. Farrant said this represents 16 per cent of the Save On Meats staff. The employees include Downtown Eastside locals as well as members of the Developmental Disabilities Association.

[pullquote]We always give people a few chances until we feel like the ‘chances’ are not helpful to their growth.[/pullquote]Farrant said Save On has not been deterred by the reasons that have kept their neighbours from doing the same, despite having experienced some bumps on the road in its early years when Brand tried to maintain a ratio of 50 per cent local residents on staff. 

“Hygiene issues have never been a problem at all,” said Farrant. “I think that’s a bit of a general assumption that people ‘with barriers’ are filthy. We run our kitchen and facility with the same standards that everyone does. Washing hands, clean uniforms, food safe.” Workers aren’t allowed to start their shifts if they are visibly impaired.

How to handle employees who don’t show up is a fine line.

“We just walk that fine line with each individual case,” she said. “Are we being flexible and tolerant, or enabling? We always give people a few chances until we feel like the ‘chances’ are not helpful to their growth… It’s just part of investing in people outside of the scope of a job.”

Luca Forest, Waves manager and longtime Downtown Eastside resident, subscribes to the same approach.

Outside his coffee shop at East Cordova and Main, Forest, 22, laughs off  the jest of a café regular shuffling along the sidewalk, who says his new haircut makes him look like Casanova. Still smiling, he turns serious.

“I hate the stigma… but the truth is it’s hard to hire people down here because you don’t know if they’re going to steal.”

Despite the risks, he has taken a chance on a number of high-barrier locals, including recovering addicts.

“Most of the new businesses down here say they’ll hire local people but they won’t.  I’ve done so and 95 per cent of the people have worked out.”

The ire of March

With the steady arrival of high-end businesses in the neighbourhood, advocates for the area’s poor have stepped up their criticism in recent months.

[pullquote]This restaurant with its two jobs in the kitchen is not going to help this community.[/pullquote]Protesters have camped out daily in front of  the latest arrival, the upscale PiDGiN restaurant, waving placards and at times shining flashlights in the eyes of patrons.

“This restaurant is giving a signal to the high-end real estate [developers] that this neighbourhood is open for business, and we’re giving them a signal that it’s not,” said activist and community organizer with Carnegie Community Action Project, Wendy Pedersen.

While Pedersen describes the protest’s goal as dissuading gentrification until social housing needs are met, one of the broad criticisms is that new businesses like PiDGiN don’t bring benefit to their poor neighbours.

“This restaurant with its two jobs in the kitchen is not going to help this community.  There used to be a place you could buy CDs and get photocopying here. Now I’m not going be able to go inside and get a $5 pickle.”

Relative to the approximately 25 businesses interviewed for this story, however, PiDGiN holds up among the most committed.

According to the restaurant’s website, in addition to the two Downtown Eastside residents in the kitchen, its owners hired locals in the renovation of their space, donate to local recycling efforts, hire window washers, and support local cleaning company Blue Shell.

Something to learn from social enterprise

People who are experienced in the hard work of getting people at the bottom of society’s barrel back into the workforce understand why some of the new businesses are successful at hiring local and others aren’t. It takes planning, effort and a broad base of support.

Potluck Café and Catering is a social enterprise that has succeeded in this goal, having grown into a $1-million-per-year business over the last 12 years, while simultaneously mentoring, training and elevating struggling locals into self-sufficiency.

Potluck manager Johnny Perry described the importance of wrap-around supports in approaching the problem. “[We] supply… people with bus passes, groceries to take home, maybe frozen take-home meals, clothing, whatever it is to get the person to come back to work the next day and the day after, and the day after.“

These tangible resources bolster the other key supports they provide in helping workers secure better housing and obtain resources to address inter-personal, mental health, and addictions issues.

Through these efforts, Potluck helps workers build skills, a work ethic, and self-esteem.

Perry is in the process of launching Recipes for Success, a program through which Potluck will share these best practices in training and employing high-barrier workers.

The goal of Recipes is to build capacity in other not-for-profits, mission-based businesses — and private industry.

“The important thing for us is to build capacity,” Perry said.  “I want to be able to share what’s worked for Potluck through the years, and I want to see people work and succeed in their own way.”

So far, none of the new Downtown Eastside businesses has taken advantage of Perry’s experience. Just like the neighbourhood residents, they’re figuring out how to succeed in their own way.

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Related: Downtown Eastside charity creates jobs for fortunate few by Jimmy Thomson and Garrett Hinchey