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Social enterprises help workers with barriers get back on their feet

Tania Lerat was getting by doing general labour, mostly shifts cleaning up trash on construction sites through a for-profit temp agency in Surrey.

“I wasn’t able to make more money, I was pretty much at a standstill,” she said. “I was lingering, not knowing what to do. I was stuck.”

She was injured on the job and not working when she moved to Vancouver. When she was ready to go back to work a friend’s son steered her toward Embers, a social enterprise that supplies temporary workers for construction, special events and warehouse and manufacturing.

“He said they help people get tickets (professional credentials), so you can get better jobs and make more money,” said Lerat, who is from the Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan. “I did general labour for awhile, until they said I was done with that and I could get my hoist ticket.”

Now, she makes much better money, enough that she can help out her children and grandchildren. On Friday, she brought them to Embers to meet her mentors, like two sides of her family coming together.

“I have a choice to go to work with a company, but I have chosen to stay with Embers,” she said. “They help you find better opportunities and they’ll help you out with other parts of your life if you ask.”

Tania’s story is not as rare as you might think.

Social enterprises contribute tens of millions of dollars to the local economy of the Downtown Eastside and employ thousands of people in the process, according to a new report.

The 40 not-for-profit businesses surveyed last year produced $37 million in gross revenue and an estimated $63 million in direct benefit to the community through wages and local purchasing, according to the Downtown Eastside Social Enterprise Impact report by Buy Social Canada.

“When I look down those streets I see the poverty and desperation, but I also know people, and not everybody is using drugs,” said Marcia Nozick, the CEO and founder of Embers.

“A lot of people are starting life over again and you can’t easily see them, sometimes because they are still homeless, but there are people on the rise, too,” she said. “People every day come to us to get back on their feet.”

Embers coached and employed about 2,000 people last year and sends 300 workers a day into the field.


Marcia Nozick is the CEO of Embers, a social enterprise temp agency.

Jon Benjamin Photography /

PNG

Many of the 75 or so social enterprises operating in Vancouver’s Inner City also help workers find and keep housing and give them the soft skills required to get and keep a job, such as workplace communication, conflict resolution, teamwork, time management and professionalism.

“We also support people to move off the street and back into school and obtain a health balance,” said Constance Barnes, executive director of the Four Directions Trading Post. Around one third of the vendors who set up shop at the public market-style trading post are homeless.

“We measure our success when we see another person move forward in their lives because we were able to provide supportive employment,” she says in the report. “A job means income, and so much more, it’s self-esteem, friendships, it’s belonging to a community.”

A longtime social enterprise, Potluck Cafe operates a catering business and prepares tens of thousands of meals each year to nutritionally vulnerable local residents. Around 45 employees receive soft skills training and hard kitchen skills that will allow them to flourish at Potluck and beyond.

How you spend has a huge impact on the quality of your community. A dollar spent in a national chain store returns less than 14 cents to the local economy, according to the Civic Economic Survey of Independent Businesses.

That same dollar spent with a business or food service company on the Downtown Eastside returns about 70 cents to the local economy in the form of wages, local procurement, labour and charitable giving, the report indicated.


East Van Roasters is an award-winning social enterprise coffee roaster and chocolatier.

Jenelle Schneider /

Vancouver Sun

Targeting and employing people who are in poverty and who have barriers to employment has a measurable positive impact on health care costs, criminal justice costs and social assistance costs. Every dollar invested, brings a return of $4, the report says.

Governments can leverage property to create benefits that far exceed the revenue that flows from renting business space at market prices, the report notes.

Community Impact Real Estate — CIRE — leases 26 such units from B.C. Housing and releases around 60 per cent of them to social enterprises on a cost-recovery basis. The remaining spaces are leased at market rates to commercial tenants.

Full-rate businesses, Di Beppe restaurant and Nelson Seagull operate shoulder to shoulder with social tenants, such as the award-winning coffee roaster and chocolatier East Van Roasters, which employees women who live in the social housing units upstairs in the Ranier Hotel.

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