Fighting Drug Addiction With 'Flash Jobs' and High Fashion

Sweden's Stadsmission has become the H&M of charity work.
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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.”

***

The Stadsmission’s second-hand stores carry Janna Hellerup’s imprint. Hellerup joined the organization eight years ago from a Swedish shoe retailer, and was tasked with revamping the stores’ visual design.

“Initially, these were places selling leftover stuff, and the only goal was to get people into work,” Hellerup told me. “But then we realized that we had to do this in a more professional way, so we could make money to finance our other social projects.”

A model shows off Remake clothing (Stadsmission)

Today, the Stadsmission has annual revenues of $38 million and employs 650 people; like similar groups in the U.S., it gets 10-20 percent of its funding from local and national government grants. Of Sweden’s 34,000 homeless people, 3,500 live in Stockholm and most come in contact with one of the Stadsmission’s services in a given year.

During the charity’s rebranding, corporate-retail partners donated money and their visual designers’ talent to create one design for all the Stadsmission’s second-hand locations. The stores look like a cross between Gap, H&M, and Pottery Barn (dishes and glasses seem to be the most frequently donated goods). The organization also leverages technology to build support for its programs. In one fundraising campaign over Christmas, celebrities accompanied social workers on their nightly rounds, and live-tweeted and plotted on a dynamic map their efforts to help people around the city. The emotional campaign was a hit: Swedes donated $2 million to the organization during the fundraiser.

Technology, in fact, is fundamental to the Stadsmission’s goals. Its stores feature the same digital-inventory and cash-register systems as Swedish clothing chains like H&M. The idea is to train people—some of whom have never used a computer—on systems they may eventually encounter in the private sector. 

“We have different ways of helping people,” Hellerup explained. “In the stores we have work training for people who have left homelessness and who are closer to the job market. We also help people who are ill or have a disability, and even people who don’t speak the language. They can come and train in our shops and, eventually, get a job in the regular job market.”

Hellerup is particularly excited about the Blixtjobb program, which she said is the most successful attempt so far in Sweden to give long-term addicts a pathway to sobriety.

“Many people in Blixtjobbs thought it was impossible for them to ever have jobs. That no one wanted them,” Hellerup told me. “Yet we put them in jobs. And their attitudes changed. They begin to realize they are worth something—that they can have a meaningful life.”

The Blixtjobb program jibes with what many European Union drug-policy experts say is a critical component of any successful drug-treatment program: addressing drug users’ social needs rather than just their medical needs, as often happens in methadone-replacement programs. Indeed, EU officials have called on member states to consider social exclusion more closely when combating drug use.

***

In order to graduate from the Blixtjobb scheme to a position at Remake or in the second-hand shops, participants must stop using drugs. In the pilot, 15 of 90 people did just that and moved into other Stadsmission jobs or onto higher education.

“Fifteen people out of 90 doesn’t sound like much,” Hellerup noted, “But in this group of people, it’s a really good result.”

The Stadsmission cafe (Kwong Yee Cheng/Flickr)

Swedish drug-policy experts think so too. Sweden suffered a heroin epidemic in the 1960s and 70s, and its government has tried various treatment programs, ranging from drug legalization to today’s zero-tolerance policy.

“Around 20 percent is not a bad outcome,” Per Johansson of Sweden’s National Association for a Drug-Free Society told me. “But it’s similar to what you’d see in any treatment program for opiates like heroin.” Johansson noted that in Sweden—as in most countries—data on heroin use is spotty. Studies in the U.K., which has also battled heroin addiction, peg the success rate of treatment programs as low as 3.5 percent. Given those numbers, experts like Johannsson are cautiously optimistic about the Stadsmission’s outcomes.

Former addicts like Susi, meanwhile, see the Blixtjobb initiative as having made the difference between life and death.

“I have gotten my family back,” Susi said. “My brothers are talking to me again and finally everything is really good.”

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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