Fighting Drug Addiction With 'Flash Jobs' and High Fashion

Sweden's Stadsmission has become the H&M of charity work.
A Stadsmission storefront (Jonas Forth/Flickr)

STOCKHOLM—Marie Teike is a fashion designer who manages a tailor shop at the Stockholms Stadsmission, the main charity in Sweden’s capital. One of her star pupils is Susi, a rail-thin, 50-something woman with a deeply lined face who can be found most days working assiduously over her sewing machine.

The Stadsmission, founded in 1853, is the cornerstone of the city’s social-welfare system. “We were founded at a time when poverty in Stockholm was huge,” Stadsmission’s Sandra Axell explained. “During the Industrial Revolution, people moved from the countryside to Stockholm, and not everyone made it. A group of Christian people wanted to do something for those in need. That’s how we got our start. Today, however, we’re a secular non-profit organization.”

The charity’s offerings range from homeless shelters to soup kitchens to a magazine that homeless people sell in train stations. Yet over the last 10 years, the Stadsmission has remade itself into something of a fashion company, specializing in high-end, vintage goods. The organization runs eight fancy second-hand clothing and houseware stores as well as a popular bakery and cafe next to the Stockholm Stock Exchange. These shops employ people transitioning out of homelessness and drug addiction—they give people who would not easily find work in the private sector a chance to turn their lives around.

But perhaps the most ambitious project the group has taken on is a pilot program launched last year called Blixtjobb, which translates roughly to “Flash Jobs.” The trial—based on a similar effort in Norway—sought to help hard-core heroin addicts who had failed out of other treatment programs, based on the thinking that the chronically addicted might use fewer drugs if they had a job to go to in the morning. The jobs, in private homes and businesses, ranged from painting, to shoveling snow, to cleaning windows, to sweeping subway platforms, to gardening. The Stadsmission, which served as a clearinghouse between the employers and employees, paid participants 400 Swedish kronor (about $60) in cash for four hours of work, and gave them the option of working as much or as little as they liked.

After a year of testing the concept, the Stadsmission found that most participants showed up irregularly and tended to use the money they earned to buy more drugs. Yet a core group—17 percent of the 90 people in the program—worked five days a week, stopped using drugs, found permanent housing, and moved on to higher-level jobs within the Stadsmission. The program was deemed a success, and the organization plans to roll it out nationally this year.

***

One of the success stories was Susi’s.

“Before coming here, Susi lived on the streets and had abused drugs,” Teike told me. “But she’s now got her own apartment. She works in one of the second-hand stores once a week. She is learning to live with her fear of addiction—to acknowledge that this isn’t a problem that will go away.”

After joining the Blixtjobb program, Susi quickly graduated to a job in the tailor shop, which is right next door to the Blixtjobb office. She received training from Teike, whose role in the organization ranges from seamstress to sympathetic ear to motivational coach.

The tailor shop, called Remake, takes donated items that the Stadsmission’s second-hand shops aren’t able to sell and creates new products bearing the charity’s own label. The goods, which range from furniture to clothing to tote bags, are then resold in the stores. People like Susi are taught how to rework these items—and, in so doing, they become a critical part of the business enterprise.

Susi (Stadsmission)

“I am using this fake leather for the lining and for the base,” Susi explained to me on the day I visited the workshop, “and this leopard print fabric on the sides.”

Susi’s diligence at the sewing machine resulted in a pile of tote bags ready to be sent out to the Stadsmission’s shops later that day. Each sells for 60 kronor (about $10). The bags have become a popular—and fashionable—way for Stockholmers to show their support for the group’s mission.

Susi, meanwhile, is happy to discuss her work and her role in the organization. But when it comes to the subject of her life before sobriety, she clams up somewhat. All she would say about her 30-year battle with heroin—the marks of which are apparent on her forearms, which she plucks at, nervously, when asked about the past—is that addiction is behind her.

“I didn’t know it myself,” she said, “But I had been longing for so long to get a job and into some kind of a daily routine.” Then she turned away, and pushed the fabric in her hands forward under the needle.

“Sewing isn’t the main reason they are here,” Teike noted as we continued chatting within earshot of Susi’s humming sewing machine. “There’s no future for them in sewing here in Europe. But we train them in how to behave in the workplace. By coming in and working with their hands, their heads can relax a bit. And when your head relaxes, you have the energy to think about all the other things you have to take care of in your life, like housing, jobs, family relations.”

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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