Fred Victor employs people who have experienced homelessness. And we “get” that being homeless is not something they want to spend their life talking about or explaining to others. In some social service jobs, having lived experience of homelessness is a definite asset.
Mandy Ashton is the co-ordinator of Change Toronto and Fred Victor’s social service traineeship program. She says, “Part of the reason for the program is that we are saying to the private sector, we want you to hire our people. So, we feel WE have to do it ourselves FIRST, and then we can go to the private sector and ask them to do the same.”
Our program is experiential, on-the-job training based on a clear work plan with evaluation throughout. At the end of the year-long program we want trainees to be able to say, I completed one year as a hostel worker or a community worker. The traineeship creates a career path for people who may be experiencing the stigma attached to a bout of homelessness. We have three trainees in three different service areas at Fred Victor right now.“
Meet Alex Zsager. If you’re in his office, he answers the phone with a cheerful, “Good Morning, Al Zsager!” Alex is the social service trainee who is working in Fred Victor’s Concurrent Disorder Support Services program (mental health and addiction). There’s almost nothing he hasn’t done successfully and for long stints of time. He worked in Community Relations for the Vancouver Canucks for 15 years and helped start the Canuck Foundation. How the heck does he end up homeless, you might ask.
At 56, the company he was working for “downsized” and he lost his job. Alex reflects, “At first I thought, no problem, I’m good at getting jobs. I went for interviews and said, ‘Look, I’ve got a ton of experience. Everywhere I’ve worked, I cut costs…’ but it seemed every time, the age thing came into play. Finally my Employment Insurance ran out and next thing I know I’m living in a shelter. I had to deal with depression, I had to deal with the situation I was in. Fortunately, I wasn’t in the system long and I was determined to keep getting out there.”
Now 63, Alex says, “But, I’m glad it was like that. It opened my eyes. Now I see the need, the importance of dealing with people with mental health, poverty, addictions and homelessness. They are not getting the resources to help them live decent lives.”
The social service traineeship is a power house of a program. It sees asset where others might see mistakes. Someone like Alex, who has felt the sting of rejection, can pick up his life and Fred Victor wins a great employee in the process. It’s definitely a “win-win” situation!