Austin Davis was luckier than most. He had a good family, an education and a steady work history prior to his addiction. But despite those resources, he still struggled to find employment after treatment.

“I pretty much took the first job I could get,” he said. “I was moving vending machines for just above minimum wage — and I had a college degree.”

First Step House, an addiction-recovery center in Salt Lake City, launched an employment program Friday in conjunction with Salt Lake County that looks to improve hiring opportunities for those recovering from substance abuse and behavioral health disorders — many of whom may have even fewer resources than Davis did.

“Overcoming addiction can be a lifetime and a lifelong struggle, and those who take that first step, that first leap into recovery, often hit roadblocks that are completely out of their control and of no choice of their own,” Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said at the program’s launch Friday afternoon. “And one of those roadblocks is finding employment.”

The Employment Preparation and Placement program (EPP) can’t make a spotty work history, criminal record or gaps in a resume disappear. But its supporters think the program can help remove other obstacles for First Step’s patients.

“Far too often, they may not have the job skills that can sustain them,” McAdams told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So what this program is about is helping connect them with programs where they can learn job skills that will help them to elevate their own wages and connect them with employers who may train them or take a chance on somebody who has a bit of a checkered past but has turned a leaf in life.”

The program will offer dedicated employment services to First Step House’s patients — only 17 percent of whom are employed when they enter treatment, said Davis, who now works as the program’s associate director. Those who do have a job generally make less than $15,000 a year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Austin Davis talks about First Step House, after a news conference announcing the new employment program at the First Step House, with KeyBank Foundation and Salt Lake County Housing and Community Development, Friday, June 29, 2018.

The program gained financial support from the KeyBank Foundation, which committed a $200,000 foundational community grant, and Salt Lake County Housing, which put $47,424 forward through a Community Development Block Grant.

With those funds, First Step House will hire two employment specialists charged with helping clients access full-time employment and higher wages and developing long-term careers.

The EPP program will work with those under First Step’s care who are struggling most with finding, maintaining or progressing in employment. Clients can access one-on-one career advice, with specialists available to look over resumes and coach people through job interviews. The program looks especially to help those with an addictive disorder who have also experienced homelessness and have a history of criminal behavior.

‘Economic redemption’

The EPP program isn’t the first instance of Salt Lake County pairing with First Step House as part of its wider goals in addressing homelessness. The organization also helped with Operation Diversion, a county-funded law enforcement initiative to open treatment beds at the center for drug users, and with REACH, a program that looks to reduce criminal recidivism.

“Every penny that we put into treatment, into job training and placement, is money spent preventing expensive stays in hospital beds and jail beds,” McAdams said in his remarks. “Giving those who need a leg up puts them back on the road to self-sufficiency and independence, dignity and respect.”

McAdams said having a steady job also furthers recovery, providing structure, purpose, self-sufficiency, self-esteem and new relationships.

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said the benefits of programs like EPP extend far beyond the individual and into the community, as well — part of a phenomenon she calls “economic redemption.”

“In the case of people who suffer from behavioral health problems and substance-abuse problems, redemption is the opportunity to regain human dignity,” she said. “And when you combine the concept of redemption with economics, some really amazing things happen.”

To begin with, she said helping those who are experiencing homeless and addiction get back on their feet to find steady jobs can help ease the labor shortage in Utah, where many businesses have a hard time finding skilled workers to fill open positions.

That will also benefit the economy, Gochnour said, helping to grow income, productivity and tax revenues for everyone.

“Great economies win when the bounties of economic achievement are shared for the greater good,” she said. “When we increase long-term employment outcomes for patients managing substance use disorders and co-occuring mental health conditions, we build a better Utah economy — a Utah economy that embraces economic redemption and shares our economic bounties with all.”

Moving ‘beyond the stigma’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charles Talcott, a member of First Step’s Board of Directors talks to reporters before a news conference announcing the new employment program at the First Step House, with KeyBank Foundation and Salt Lake County Housing and Community Development, Friday, June 29, 2018.

When Charles Talcott, a veteran, “graduated” from treatment at First Step House in 1989, it took him some time to get back on his feet.

Like Davis, he had “a hole in his resume” — filled with addiction and homelessness, he said — that was difficult to explain to prospective employers. He eventually found work in the construction industry but said it was “a struggle to get started,” in part because of the stigma associated with addiction and homelessness.

“People identify the condition,” he said. “They identify addiction. And when we’ve got Joe standing there, most of the world looks at the condition and never sees Joe. At places like First Step, we meet Joe. You know who Joe is? Joe’s somebody dad. Somebody’s brother. Somebody’s son.”

In last year’s state legislative session, Utah passed a bill to help address that stigma by prohibiting government employers from excluding applicants from a job interview if they’ve been convicted of a crime and from asking about criminal records before an interview. Rep. Sandra Hollins, who sponsored the legislation, said it offers a chance for applicants to get their foot in the door.

Talcott said First Step’s new employment program will provide the organization’s newer patients with the chance for a smoother re-entry into the job force than he had, in part by combating stigma, as well.

“There’s no reason why anyone in the planet cannot recover,” he said. “Part of the thing is we can easy make it easy on them or hard on them. And society, because of the stigma thing, has historically been making it as hard as they can on somebody who has that disease of addiction. So it’s time that we move beyond the stigma.”