Giving unemployment the boot

Source: Vancouver Observer

A young man pulls a pair of steel-toed work boots off the shelf and inspects the soles. He needs a size ten and magically they happen to be his size. With the assistance of a Working Gear volunteer, he also picks out a hard hat, a pair of work gloves and then begins looking at suits to try on. He is hoping to find work in either construction, or in real estate – the career he used to do before drugs spiraled him out of control.

With steely blue eyes and blond hair, 33-year-old Darby Norton looks more like the real estate agent he wants to be, than the person he had become only a few short years ago. “I knew how to get high and stay high but that was about all I knew how to do,” says Norton.

Struggling with addiction, he lost his job and moved in with his brother who ironically, was also fighting addiction to pain medication after being the victim of a motorcycle accident.  The two, struggling with addiction, fed off each other and before long they were both consumed by the drug culture of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Norton is vague about his experiences living as an addict but hints at troubling events like being jumped, his wife’s suicide, using harder and harder drugs, and destroying relationships with the people that tried to help him.

“I realized that it wasn’t at all what I wanted for my life, I don’t think anybody does. I didn’t know I was going to be there but then all of the sudden I was there…things just spiraled to that place. I had a lot of friends who partied but things just went a lot further for me,” says Norton.

That was two years ago. He says, “It’s been a lot of trial and error to get clean. I got out of being around people that did drugs, and then away from people that abused alcohol.” He now associates with people that are healthier and connected spiritually but admits it’s still a struggle. “It’s hard to want to get help, and it’s hard to stay wanting to get help because it’s easy to get caught up in depression and addiction.”

Part of wanting to get help is Norton’s desire to find work, and unique non-profit called Working Gear Clothing Society is helping him get his feet back on solid ground. The organization, located in the Downtown Eastside, supplies donated clothing and work gear specifically to men seeking employment, and now through a unique and spirited campaign called “No Small Feet” it is publicizing the need for steel-toed work boots and shoes.

“To you they might be an old pair of boots or shoes but to our customers they really are a hand-up,” says Lani Johnson Vice Chair of Working Gear Clothing Society. “These men for the most part are on welfare and are actively seeking full-time employment but with just enough money to live on, the added pressure and expense of buying boots and clothing can lead to discouragement for many.”

With the help of a Community Grant from Vancity the “No Small Feet” campaign was created with the aim to collect 400 new and used work boots and shoes for distribution by September 1st.

“We are so grateful to Vancity for their support,” says Johnson.  “There are a lot of organizations and clothing stores in the Downtown Eastside but no one does what we do. We really help these men look sharp and professional as they begin working to change their lives.”

Norton confidently comes out of the fitting room sporting a sharp three-piece suit, crisp white shirt, red tie, and the perfect dress shoes.  The suit fits like it was made for him, and he looks undoubtedly like a real estate agent.  He shares that he has already found some part time work in an office for a Remax agent who understands his past struggles with addiction, and is encouraging him to work towards getting his license renewed.

When asked where he sees himself in five years a determined Norton says, “The real estate opportunity is there, and I’m going to take it, and stick with it, and see where it takes me.”

Updates on the “Not Small Feet” campaign and Working Gear can be followed on Twitter at @WorkingGear, or on the Working Gear Facebook account: Working Gear.