Transitions in income generation among marginalized people who use drugs: A qualitative study on recycling and vulnerability to violence

Int J Drug Policy. 2018 Sep;59:36-43. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.06.014. Epub 2018 Jul 4.


Background: Income is an important determinant of health among people who use drugs (PWUD). However, understanding transitions between differing types of income generation within the formal and informal economy and how they can be shaped by vulnerability to risk and harm remain poorly understood. This study examines how transitions in income-generating activities are shaped by and influence exposure to violence among marginalised PWUD, in Vancouver, Canada's, Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood.

Methods: Qualitative interviews were conducted with twenty-six individuals engaged in informal and illegal income-generating activities in the DTES. Interview transcripts were analyzed thematically, focusing on relationships between income generation and violence during the study period between January 2014 to April 2015 and drew upon concepts of social violence when interpreting these themes.

Results: Participants' engagement in informal and illegal income-generating activities represented a means to negotiate survival given multiple barriers to formal employment and inadequate economic supports. Our findings highlight how informal and illegal income-generating activities in the DTES are characterized by structural, symbolic and everyday violence, while transitions from 'high risk' (e.g., sex work, drug dealing) to perceived 'low risk' (e.g., recycling) activities represent attempts to reduce exposure to violence. However, participants emphasized how informal income generation was nonetheless shaped by structural violence (e.g., gendered hierarchies and police harassment), experienced as everyday violence, and introduced exposure to alternate risks.

Conclusion: Our findings underscore the critical role of income generation in shaping exposure to violence, highlighting the need for low-threshold employment interventions targeting PWUD as a central component of harm reduction strategies.

Keywords: Harm reduction; Income generation; Informal recycling; Risk; Violence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Canada
  • Drug Trafficking / economics
  • Drug Trafficking / statistics & numerical data
  • Drug Users / statistics & numerical data
  • Employment / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Income / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Qualitative Research
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Sex Work / statistics & numerical data
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / economics*
  • Violence / economics*