Binding Together Addicts' Lives

Not-for-profit New York company houses, trains, counsels, and pays recovering drug abusers. DRUG TREATMENT

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ELIZABETH BARBOSA had never held a job - except as an addicted, street-wise heroin dealer. So when she finally decided to check into a 17-month-long residential drug treatment program to kick her seven-year habit, she was dubious about her job prospects. ``I thought I could never work. I thought I wasn't part of society,'' says the soft-spoken high school dropout who grew up in the South Bronx. Yet for the last two years, this 25-year-old mother of two has held a full-time job and says she has been free of heroin use.

Ms. Barbosa attributes much of her success to the job training she received from Binding Together, Inc. (BTI), a not-for-profit printing and binding corporation that offers training in the printing industry for recovering addicts. During a six-month program, she learned how to set up, operate, service, and maintain high-tech office and copying equipment while she received regular counseling and treatment at a live-in drug treatment center.

Barbosa is one of 82 recovering addicts who have graduated from this two-year-old, one-of-a-kind program. Last spring, BTI was selected by the US Department of Labor for a presidential award for its ``outstanding program for serving those with multiple barriers to employment.''

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``Everybody says that to place people who are homeless and addicted to drugs is impossible,'' says Ted Small, president of Small & Associates, a private consulting firm here that conceived the program five years ago. ``It is not impossible, but it requires a complex partnership of a lot of different groups working together,'' Mr. Small continues. His company specializes in developing employment programs for people with drug and alcohol problems, as well as those with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities.

BTI participants are carefully selected by drug-rehabilitation agencies and BTI counselors.

Every aspect of a person's problem needs to be addressed - from rehabilitation to homelessness to job training, Small says. Even if you solve every problem but one, ``you may have thrown your money away'' if you can't solve the last one, says the Yale Law School graduate who was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers. What's unusual about BTI is that it combines the business community, counseling, residential drug treatment, and a job training program, he says.

Drugs, homeless link

Small & Associates first began working on the BTI program in 1985 at the request of New York's Division of Substance Abuse Service (DSAS). ``They said they had a real problem in providing vocational services to people who were not only on drugs, but had been on drugs to such an extent that they'd become homeless,'' says Small in an interview at his office near Wall Street.

Drug abuse and homelessness often go hand in hand, he says. And recovering addicts seldom have enough money even for the security deposit on an apartment when they leave treatment programs. The problem is more acute in expensive cities like New York, he says.

Recovering addicts may find themselves at ``the reentry phase,'' says Small: off drugs, but unsure of ``what they are going to do with their lives.'' How do such people get themselves out of the circumstances that got them into drugs in the first place? Small asks. Too often, they return to the streets - and to drugs - because they have little money or means.

Recidivism can be reduced, Small claims, by giving recovering addicts job training and housing in a residential treatment center, and temporary housing while they look for jobs.

The most current statistics in an ongoing DSAS study show that of the 125 BTI participants enrolled since the program began in 1988, 30 were in training, 13 had dropped out, and 82 had graduated. Of the graduates, 76 got jobs. Six months later, 83 percent of them were still employed. Some had been promoted.

``Those outcomes are fabulous for any group in an employment and training program,'' says Joan Randell, assistant deputy director of DSAS. ``To have 83 percent still working after six months is unheard-of ... considering these people are among the hardest to be served.''

DSAS is one of five state and city agencies funneling federal funds from the Job Training Partnership Act to provide half of BTI's $1 million annual budget. The rest comes from sales and private-sector grants.

``Binding Together stands for a commitment by the private sector and government agencies working for a common cause,'' says Phil Caldarella, the program's director. A former New York City police officer, Mr. Caldarella covered the Times Square beat before he retired on disability. He also worked in the printing industry for five years.

Blue-chip firms such as Kodak, Xerox, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch are represented on BTI's board. Graduates have been placed in board-member companies. The companies also are clients of BTI.

``We're looking for ways to do collaborative efforts between business and government,'' says Mary Quigley, assistant commissioner for the Department of Employment in New York City, which also provides funding for BTI. ``If you can identify an industry need ... you've reduced the cost to the government,'' she says. And as BTI's business picks up, she adds, less and less money from government agencies will be needed until the program is self-sufficient.

`I felt like somebody'

When Barbosa first entered the Binding Together program, she thought it was going to be ``nothing but time lost. But I learned a lot,'' she says. ``When I started this training, I felt like somebody; I felt real good about me. You have to come dressed up every day. You know, little things that I never had before that made me feel better. ... I got into it. I really enjoyed this work, and I kept coming.''

Barbosa is still working for the same employer she started with a year ago, after she finished her training at BTI. ``They tell me that I'm one of their best workers, and I feel good,'' she says.

Ted Small attributes part of the success of the program to the level of skill and expertise the trainees gain. ``This is state-of-the-art stuff,'' he says of the office machinery that is becoming increasingly complex with computerization and redesign. ``Part of the thing in any training program is to give people the sense that they can manipulate their environment - they can, in a real way, make something happen, make the machine do something,'' he adds. ``Coming to work on time every day, doing a job - all of that increases their sense of self-respect, discipline, and control over their lives.''

The printing industry is the fourth-largest in the United States, and workers are in short supply, says Caldarella: Most graduates have landed jobs, and their average starting salary is about $14,000-15,000.

As an incentive, and as a way to satisfy welfare department requirements (benefits cannot be collected while working), each participant has a ``deferred compensation'' account set up at a local bank. A portion of BTI's sales goes into the accounts.

For graduates, a nest egg

Graduates continue to live at the treatment center while looking for jobs. Once they find one, the money that has accumulated in their accounts is handed over - about $2,000, enough for a security deposit and the first month's rent on an apartment.

``We thought that it would be very important to empower them to become consumers,'' says Small. ``The way you do that is by giving them counseling, which is cheap, and money,'' he adds.

Including the deferred compensation money, the per-participant cost to the taxpayer for the six-month program is about $7,000, according to DSAS.

``Rehabilitating people long term takes a lot of money,'' says DSAS's Randell. ``There are no quick fixes, really.'' The expense is ``more than saved by the initial investment over time,'' she says, because it addresses the problem long term: ``If these people become workers in mainstream society, ... you're changing not only their lives, but you're changing the lives of their children.''

The possibility of replicating the program in other cities is being explored. And Caldarella has been contacted by numerous organizations in the New York area interested in setting up similar programs: a Vietnam veterans group, an organization for people with AIDS, a program for runaway children, and a program for recently released prison inmates.

``We're exploring possibilities of opening up a second shift with an entirely new population with additional staff,'' he says.

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