Oxfordshire County Council: giving service users ‘a sense of purpose’

A café staffed by substance misuse service users has been created in Oxfordshire to help people recover from their problems.


The project also teaches them valuable skills and gives them vital experience to help them in the future.

The challenge

Drug and alcohol problems hinge on much more than reduced use of or abstinence from substances.

What people in recovery from substance misuse need to live a full life does not differ markedly from what the general population need.

DrugWise calls this the development of personal, social and community “recovery capital”.

This can involve anything from resolving housing problems and childcare to improving employability. Achieving this requires close working with partners.

In Oxfordshire the substance misuse service has sought to develop its own in-house social enterprise to provide opportunities for their clients.

The solution

Oxfordshire County Council’s substance misuse service – run by Turning Point - has a comprehensive recovery and after care programme.

It involves social activities and physical pursuits such as canoeing through to peer mentoring.

But three years ago it decided to set up a social enterprise to give those undergoing treatment the opportunity to do voluntary work to help them gain skills and aid their recovery.

The social enterprise runs the Refresh café in Oxford, which provides drinks and food six days a week from 9am to 5pm.

At any one time there are 30 people involved in doing voluntary work at the café – ranging from front-of-house staff serving food, to working in the kitchen and tendering to the allotment where some of the ingredients are grown.

The café also provides food for the local branch of Age UK to deliver to elderly residents as well as a community centre for events.

Andy Symons, who manages the substance misuse service, said: “Treatment is not just about the counselling or medication, it is also about giving people a sense of purpose.

“Some of these people will not have been in work for years or may have been in prison. They need the opportunity to develop and build their lives after treatment and that is what we have tried to give them with the café.

I also think it has helped break down some of those stereotypes about people who misuse drugs and alcohol.”

To help support clients even further, the service works in partnership with Aspire, which provides three employment workers to lend support to clients in terms of CV writing and applying for jobs.

The impact

Last year the service saw a total of 48 people volunteering at the café – above its target of 35, according to the latest performance report by Oxfordshire’s public health team.

Between them they completed nearly 4,500 hours of work.

Some 21 went into paid employment, while another 17 went into further education.

What is more, 35 remained drug and alcoholfree after treatment.

Mr A is just one of the people who was helped. The 34-year-old started volunteering while on day release from prison after being sentenced for assault while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

He worked for five-days-a-week over a three-month period. He gained a food hygiene level two certificate and received help from the employment workers. Afterwards he went on to work as a chef in a local café.

Lessons learned

Clients tend to volunteer at the café for between three and four months – although for some the relationship can last up to a year. Some will even start before they finish their treatment.

The service believes it is important to ensure there are fully-trained support staff on site there to help the clients.

Mr Symons said: “With these sort of projects, it is easy to think you are running a social enterprise, but you can’t forget it’s an extension of the treatment service.

“We have two employed members of staff who coordinate the café and are there to support the clients. These are vulnerable people and there are safeguarding issues to take into account to. You can’t just run it through volunteers.”

How the approach is being sustained

The project gets some money from the local police and crime commissioner’s office – just over £50,000 a year – but beyond that it is self-funding.

It means the service is always looking for new opportunities to expand its role. In recent years it has become a real community hub, hosting AA groups, pop-up shops and a local AA group.

“You are not going to make lots of money with this sort of project, but with a little funding and hard work you can make it work,” added Mr Symons.

Contact details

Andy Symons
Oxfordshire Substance Misuse Service Manager andy.symons@turning-point.co.uk