Alternative Medicine

For people with serious drug problems, getting and using drugs
is often a full-time occupation. Going on a methadone script
(prescription) can mean they suddenly have a lot of time on their
hands. In response to the need for constructive activity to divert
recovering drug users in Merseyside from using again, the voluntary
drugs agency Lighthouse Project set up Alternatives.

Over 10 years Alternatives has grown into a major provider of
training, education and personal development support for people
with alcohol, homelessness and offending problems as well as for
drug users. The project offers training in woodwork, metalwork,
catering, IT, business administration, hair and beauty, and basic
skills. Courses are accredited through the Open College Network,
City and Guilds and the Cambridge examination boards, and trainees
can gain recognised qualifications at NVQ level 2 equivalence. But
as project manager Malcolm Sutton explains, Alternatives offers far
more than just occupational training.

“We’re working with people at crisis point. Their priority is to
gain some control over their lives. Getting their woodwork or hair
and beauty qualifications won’t be the most important thing for
them. Tutors here are fully qualified and mostly come from a
vocational background but we look for people who have the right
personal qualities to work with our client group.”

Many Alternatives clients have been through drug treatment
programmes, and others are referred by probation, the Jobcentre
Plus or hostels for the homeless. Sutton says the criterion for
accepting people is that they are motivated to change. “When people
first come here they are often just looking for something to fill
their time. Some clients are still using street drugs, but it has
to be in a controlled way. They have to be able to get up in the
morning, arrive here at 10 and sign to say they are fit. The
project is putting seven hours a day of structure into people’s

Mike Davis, a client support worker, says every client has a
personal action plan. “We use motivational interviewing techniques
to help people work out what they want to do in the future and a
path to get there. We do a review every six to eight weeks, but
much of the work is about befriending people, chatting with them to
build trust.”

Client John Russell* says Alternatives has helped him get a grip on
a longstanding drug problem. “I’ve been coming here for a couple of
years, with about four months when I stopped. It’s helped me stay
on the straight and narrow. The staff have been great. You couldn’t
ask for more.” Russell has completed training in football coaching
and forklift truck driving and is now working towards a woodwork
qualification. “Hopefully I’ll get a full-time job in joinery or
maybe as a football coach.”

According to Davis it is not unusual for clients who drop out to
come back to Alternatives. “We have an open-door policy. People
know they can come back when they are ready. We keep people’s
mobile numbers and if someone drops out we give them a ring every
few weeks to let them know that someone cares. Sometimes I send a
handwritten letter to let them know we’re still thinking of

Alternatives has an impressive record in helping people get on with
their lives. Of the 425 people who attended last year, 200
completed their course and achieved some kind of positive outcome
such as a qualification, a place on a mainstream training or
education programme or a job. For other clients, success may mean a
place in residential rehab or family reconciliation.

Clients typically spend about four months at the project. Davis
reckons that after a year most people have learned as much as they
can. He says: “We see ourselves as a stepping stone, getting people
ready for mainstream. Sometimes we have to give people a bit of a
shove to get them to move on.”

* Not his real name

Lessons Learned

  • Recovering drug-users and other vulnerable clients need
    structure and support. Alternatives offers transport to and from
    the site, meals, a programme of sports and social activities as
    well as mentoring. Sutton says: “Our clients aren’t robust enough
    to go on a mainstream training programme. We offer a lot of support
    that colleges don’t provide.”
  • Work closely with other agencies. “We might make an appointment
    with a housing agency or a debt counsellor or refer a client to a
    drugs service. People can attend another service once or twice a
    week and come here the rest of the time,” says Davis.

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