Sunniva Finlay has spent years supporting people with substance-abuse issues and helping to steer them through recovery.
“They are often long-term unemployed. They could have history of being in prison, but they have gone through rehabilitation and really worked on their lives,” says Finlay.
But she and her team at the Ballyfermot Star have noticed that even when people have overcome considerable challenges to piece together their lives, they still face a major stumbling block: who is going to employ them?
Finlay thinks the answer lies in creating a social enterprise, and she has her eye on a long-vacant café space in the Ballyfermot Leisure Centre.
There, local people recovering from substance abuse could have a chance at real employment and earning a living wage, she says.
At the Moment
Among the many services that the Ballyfermot Star provides to people recovering from substance-use issues at the moment is the chance to join community-employment (CE) schemes.
The schemes offer some education, with the chance to study English, maths, history and computers skills, among other subjects.
This helps to prepare people for work, with rules like a limited number of sick days, says Finlay. But it isn’t a real job.
After these schemes, some people opt for further education, which is great and opens up opportunities, says Finlay, but more often they just want to work. “What they need is employment,” she says.
“There is never going to be another Semperit in Ballyfermot,” she says, referring to the big tyre factory that used to be a major employer in the area. But “I truly believe that people have a right to economic independence.”
It is difficult to move from government-sponsored programmes like CE schemes to actual employment, she says.
“They have come through addiction, methadone, CE scheme,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, who also works as an addiction counsellor. “You have a pool of people who can’t get jobs in the real world.”
As he sees it, a social-enterprise model is better than charity or state schemes because the business can go on to become profitable and offer real work opportunities.
“It does make money, and it does provide an essential service to the community,” he says.
An Empty Space
There is a café space in the Ballyfermot Leisure Centre that has never been opened. It was deemed to not be commercially viable, says Finlay.
Her plan is for the people she works with to train up and run the café, providing a service to the community, including a social space in the evenings for people who don’t drink.
As she envisions it, the café would be totally professional, with excellent food, coffee and service. “Fundamentally, it is a business,” she says.
Potential employees would have to apply and interview for positions, and those who were successful would be paid a living wage, she said. They could move on to other places, too. Or move up the ladder, if they had a managerial head on their shoulders.
“There are vacancies in the catering industry, but they need on-the-job training, the customer service piece, the food preparation piece,” she says.
In time, Finlay hopes the project could expand to include a bakery at a separate site, possibly in Cherry Orchard, which could then supply other social enterprises, as well.
“Watch this space,” she says. “There is definitely more to come.”
The Money Question
The project is still in its infancy, and Finlay and her team are ironing out the business plan and how much it will all cost.
Last week, Finlay presented the idea to councillors at meeting of their South Central Area Committee. The response was enthusiastic.
Councillors unanimously agreed to recommend that the Ballyfermot Star be allowed to use the café in the leisure centre, and to write to the Department of Social Protection to recommend that it supports the project as well.
People Before Profit Councillor Hazel de Nortúin said she was impressed by the idea of creating somewhere to socialise in the evenings that doesn’t serve alcohol.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Michael Mullooly compared Finlay’s presentation to the programme Dragon’s Den. “If I was a dragon I would invest in the project and in the person presenting,” he said.
But he is not a dragon, and it will take money to get the café off the ground; that is the only part of the puzzle that Finlay hasn’t fully cracked yet, she says.
Even if she gets the premises for free from the council, she will need to get a professional kitchen installed and will need start-up money to get the project off the ground.
But Finlay is convinced she will do it. She is already hoping that other organisations in the city will follow suit. The approach seems to have worked well elsewhere.
Green Kitchen Cafes, a social enterprise that partners with WALK, an organisation that works with people with an intellectual disability, is expanding at the moment.
From the garden centre in Walkinstown Green, to Inchicore and Ballymun, the group now has a mini-chain of social-enterprise cafes in the city, says Duncan Walker, Green’s Kitchen the social-enterprise manager.
They started with a site from Dublin City Council. “Next year will be our third full year of trading and we hope that the café will be self-sustaining by then,” he says
Says Finlay: “In working-class communities, there will always be people who are long-term unemployed and it’s really important they get a chance to get back into the workforce, and social enterprise is the answer to that.”