Dylan Goggs – Founder and CEO, Clean Start BC


August 6, 2020

CleanStart BC is a social enterprise that provides junk removal, hoarding cleanup, pest control, and extreme cleaning services and their clients are primarily non-profits in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). When COVID hit they pivoted their cleaning services and became crucial in the preventive efforts against the virus to keep Single Room Occupant (SRO) residents and staff safe. 

Clean Start proudly hire staff from the neighbourhood who have experienced barriers to employment, receive no outside funding, and pay a living wage.  They are ‘a business that acts as a charity, rather than the other way around’ as Dylan recounts, and they decided to stay open to avoid layoffs and provide a crucial health service in keeping social housing facilities sanitized. 

Founder and CEO Dylan Groggs talks about the role of social enterprise in the community and what it’s like to be part of the frontline protecting the neighbourhood. 

This interview took place on August 6th, 2020. Some of the information discussed below was true at the time of this interview but may currently be different. 

Alasdair: Could you explain what CleanStart BC does?

Dylan: We’re a social enterprise that hires people with barriers to employment and we work predominantly  in the non-profit housing market. We’re like a one-stop shop property clean up company. So we provide junk removal services, hoarding clean up services, some extreme cleaning, and we also have a pest control division as well. We try to help building managers call one company to do most of the internal work in a hoarding suite or someone with severe mental health issues combined with drug addiction. Usually we’re called in if there’s pests, drug paraphernalia, sharps, that kind of stuff. We’ll go in and clean that up safely and effectively. And we’ll do pest control treatments as well. On the large scale we’re the contract holders for BC Housing for all the junk removal. And then with Atira Women’s Resources Society we’re also the pest control contractor. Between them there’s about 120 buildings that we serve on a near daily basis. We have commercial clients too that we service but our niche is non-profit housing. And usually in the DTES and it’s usually the work that other companies don’t want to do. We’re happy to take that on and provide jobs for the community. 

Bill: What is your definition of a social enterprise?

Dylan: A social enterprise is a business that provides a social return on an investment for the client. Form a client’s perspective, that’s what they can offer. They’re doing something with their product or their service that is different  than the mark and the competition. From an employee perspective, a social enterprise is an environment where there is a supportive employment environment that allows for that individual’s barrier to be taken into consideration. And usually that’s not the case in a regular business where it’s just ‘show up and do the work’. We’ll give you time off or 3 days a week if you need that. 

Alasdair: Sounds like you would have to take on a lot more precautions than a standard cleaning company. How did the work change when the pandemic hit? 

Dylan:  A lot of our colleagues in the non-profits and other social enterprises were already making the decision to close and be safe. For us we don’t get any funding, we compete in the marketplace. So for us we’re a business that acts like a charity rather than the other way around. And so there’s a bit of distinction there. We’re business minded, we compete, we don’t get any support. Closing down would mean ending the revenue streams and laying people off. We collectively made the decision as a group, and most of our key employees together, we decided that we would try to stay open and try to figure out what that looks like. Health and safety protocols, Work Safe BC, Centre for Disease Control, Vancouver Coastal Health, everything we could gather. We broke it down and it was pretty simple: We had to use the proper PPE (personal protective equipment) and in theory everything is fine. So we were prepared to do that with our regular services. But at the same time one of our key clients, Atira, reached out and asked if we could do sanitation and disinfectant services as a preventative measure.. And so we pivoted our services to provide sanitation and disinfection services in the SROs. We had 50 staff members in the field 7 days a week for at least 2 months. That recently came to an end. And as that slowed down, our regular services came back online more. At the peak of COVID we were scrambling. We basically doubled the size of the company in 4 days. My wife ended up getting involved and heading up procurement for us. It was a real family thing because we decided ‘are we going to sit by and isolate and worry at home or are we going to step up and try and support the DTES’? Which is what we’ve been doing for the last 13 years anyway. And so my kids have been around all of this anyway from when I founded CleanStart, and my youngest, since he couldn’t go to school, asked if he could volunteer. Initially my wife wasn’t too happy about that but I really respected what he wanted to do so we got him on board as part of the team and we decided to pay him and not let him volunteer, so he was happy. He’s actually joined us now and is working with us on a regular basis. My other two daughters were involved as well. At the beginning we were just trying to find where we can get PPE from because everywhere was out. My wife was driving out to Chilliwack and back to make sure all of our team had the right supplies. What we did was partner with another social enterprise called Embers, an employment service company. Together we combined forces and they provided some of the labour and health and safety stuff too. And we partnered with another non-profit housing group that allowed us to use their facility. Because we needed to socially distance 50 people all at the same time as they put on their PPE. Basically, a donning station and then in the evening there was a doffing station.  We actually purchased coveralls that we were laundering on a daily basis so people had their own stuff. When it came in the evening, everything went into these big totes. We whisked it off to a laundromat and brought it back ready for the next day. It felt like 24 hours a day 7 days a week at the beginning. The great thing about the community in the DTES is the people felt so appreciative of us going into their buildings and interacting with them. It was awesome actually, a really positive experience for everybody. But yeah at the beginning we were worried, we weren’t sure if we were doing the right thing but we just followed the government guidelines for everything and there were no mishaps all around . We pulled it off, and in fact it helped us with our revenue so we’re not complaining. 

Alasdair: So why do you feel so committed to the DTES and what has your involvement been there? 

Dylan: I don’t want to get too personal but my own background, I got into recovery when I was 17 years old. I’ve lived this kind of lifestyle in one form or another,  community development and work with marginalized people. I myself was homeless when I was 17. I had regular people helping me out, help me get a job, all those kinds of things. The DTES is Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, most vulnerable, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. About 12 years ago I was in transition between career paths, we just bought a small truck and helped one building out to hire one or two people. And it just mushroomed from there. I never thought I would be a social entrepreneur. Normally my field would be more of a counselor or community development worker. But we just figured we needed to come up with some creative solutions to create employment for some of the most marginalized people in Canada. Never thought I would be a garbage man. Or dealing with bed bugs or needles or any of that stuff. I didn’t think when I woke up one day ‘that’s what I want to do with my life’. But it’s the sector that there was a gap and we filled it and built a business around it. We just used business as the framework for social change. We don’t buy into the capitalist system really but we understand it’s the predominant system that we all have to live in so we decided to get in the game and subvert that system to our advantage and hire people that wouldn’t normally get jobs in a regular junk removal company. 

Alasdair: Could you walk us through what the process is like to clean and disinfect an SRO? 

Dylan: Sure. We made it clear that we are more of a COVID-19 preventative service. We weren’t going into existing units with COVID-19 confirmed cases. Because of the scope and volume that was asked by our key client. The advice was not to go in for cross-contamination because you could pose a risk yourself by going into multiple buildings. And so it was very clear they did not want people going into the individual’s units.  It was a very simple process, we looked after all the shared communal areas that multiple people would be touching throughout the day. Entrances, stairwells, handrails, kitchen, offices, and what we did on every single unit within the building we would clean the entire door, handles, any high touch areas. We were using a product that was confirmed to kill the virus. We basically had the idea that we would have up to 4 hours per day, per building. But because of the size of the buildings we scaled that up. So if it’s 4 hours for 2 people it became 2 hours for people and then shorter if we had 6, the time frame got shorter but the man hours were the same. That’s how we did it, we scaled so we could effectively then  get throughout the buildings. Because there was a lot to do and some of them were over 125 residents and a lot of work. It was preventative work, using the right product, with the PPE, going over regular bases and then interacting with the staff and tenants really. 

Bill: What were the interactions with tenants like? 

Dylan: I would say 95% of the time phenomenal. We’re actually getting …obviously were trying not to interact directly with tenants because of the social distancing. We had all the PPE on but they didn’t. One thing that sticks out as a highlight: there were handwritten notes on people’s doors for us, just telling us how much they appreciated us. And thanking us for helping their community and their homes. That was very meaningful for us and we took a couple of photographs of that and we’ll cherish that because no one else was doing that. No one else was going down there. There were other cleaning companies operating but they weren’t offering to go to the DTES and in fact people were scared to go to the DTES. Everybody thought that was going to be the epicenter and it was going to be a disaster. Because usually what happens within that whole square mile of the DTES, there’s not that many people leaving and going to other neighbourhoods and there’s not that many people from other neighbourhoods coming down so actually everything was contained within their own environment. I think there were only two buildings that we know of through that whole time where there were 2 cases. The rest had zero cases. I don’t know how much we played into that. How can we measure that? But we felt proud that we were doing something. And what we liked was the feedback from the tenants because we were the only cleaning company down there doing that kind of stuff. 

Bill: At the height of it, when everyone was really scared, were you thinking that the DTES was going to be at the center of it and you would go in anyways? 

Dylan: Yes. There was almost hysteria at one point about what was going to happen to the tenant population of the SROs. And so we were potentially walking into what we were being told was going to happen. I had the confidence that the PPE was going to do its job. We were probably the most protected people in Vancouver, we actually had an excess of everything thanks to my wife. We had everything that we needed – products, PPE. And we had the team spirit as well. We got to a stage where people realized ‘we don’t need to be afraid’. This is a blessing that we were able to work and actually serve that community. And the feedback inside the buildings was phenomenal. People were very grateful. The tenants were awesome. 

Alasdair: How many buildings that you were able to hit in one day. 

Dylan: For one client we did 53. And then I’d say 5-10 for other clients collectively. So generally, between 50-60 per day. 

Alasdair: And what would be the safety precautions going into that, you mentioned you had this big station for donning equipment?

Dylan: So we collected a bunch of information from different health organizations – Vancouver Coastal Health, the Centre for Disease Control, the City of Vancouver – our training manual for this thing was 73 pages. It was ridiculous. We had to condense it into a handout. But we had to do it. At that stage people didn’t know what was happening and people were genuinely scared. As was I. I had a responsibility to my employees and my family was involved. Really when you strip it down it’s common sense. People had to wear gloves. They had to wear the correct respirators. We didn’t just use the P-100s, we had the full face respirators and half face respirators. Disposable coveralls. And we basically took everything off, cleaned the respirators for the next day. We had a station to do that. Every station had a guideline for how to do things. . People could only come up and receive PPE on a 1 by 1 basis. So the actual setting everyone up for their day took quite a lot of time. We got it down to about 45 minutes but at the beginning it was more like 2 hours almost to start because we were so nervous – like if you had a beard you had to have a specific type of mask. If we didn’t have enough of those masks we had razors so you could go shave because we weren’t letting you out with a respirator that wasn’t following Worksafe BC. Some of that process, with barriered people, it took a long time. But in the end it became fun and everybody got down with it. And my wife was heading that up so I stayed out of the way a little bit. We quickly learned there is a reason we don’t work together. We both like to be in charge! So I just let her run that. 

Alasdair: Sounds like a good division of labour. 

Dylan: Ya well this way at the end of the day I could blame her (jokingly). Just kidding, we were a team, and we had our executives involved as well. 

Alasdair:  You mentioned that quite a lot of the staff had barriers to employment so that was another aspect to consider. How many of the members of the staff have barriers to employment on your team? 

Dylan: Right now we have 27 people working for us and a good metric would be between 40-50%. Probably 40% of our staff have some kind of barriers. I don’t always include myself. But for example I have a hidden barrier where I’ve had a couple of tumors removed from my spine over the last 10 years which resulted in severe nerve damage in one of my legs so I have chronic pain. So we have people who may present, like myself, of not having a barrier – you wouldn’t know unless I told you. So we have the obvious folks, early in recovery, living in the DTES, single moms, people entering the workforce. We also have folks who are professionals who are new to Canada and need to get into the workforce. We just recently hired  3 university graduates from UBC in economics and business. We added them to the team. I wouldn’t say they have barriers, but we would class them as junior executives. So that was a real blessing, to get people who really wanted to do something during COVID. They don’t have barriers, they’re just new and we’re training them.  It’s a very complex thing about barriers to employment. Some people don’t like to identify as that themselves . Somebody struggling with addiction is obviously someone with a barrier. You have to figure out how often they can work. Can they be safe? In the past we’ve had up to 75% of the workforce with barriers and it becomes a bit of a nightmare because you can’t contain that and it’s actually a risk and it damages your business model. I’m a person with a big heart that  wants to help everybody. I also have a team, a board of advisers, and a strong team who keep that in check. Right now we have a good balance and I would say around 40% is an effective business model. 

Bill: People are aware of your business model, that you hire people that have barriers. So I imagine that helps you sometimes and doesn’t help you sometimes. Is there stigma? 

Dylan: Absolutely, 100% there’s stigma. We have a very strict principle about competing against regular businesses. What we say is we don’t want your donations or charity, we want your business. Use our services and we’ll show you that we’re better than the rest. And what happens is our long term employees that have barriers are more loyal and productive than the so called ‘non barrier’ staff. The issues we have with our staff in HR are more often with our non-barriered staff. Yes occasionally some people don’t show up or have a bad day. But if you take the statistics long term you’ll see that a person that has barriers understands that we’ve given them a break, offer them support, and they buy into that. It’s not easy. If it was everybody would be doing it. It’s actually a very challenging model to have. But we’re competitive and we’re a professional service and eventually people buy into that. And it’s a win-win. If a commercial company is using our services it’s good for them to let their clients know. The big buzzword right now is ‘social procurement’ and we’ve been leaders in the social enterprise community, where we’ve won very large scale contracts based upon social procurement.  So when an RFP goes out usually the points are pricing, surfaces, the environmental aspect. What we bring is also a return on the social investment that other companies can’t offer. We can provide all of the metrics on how many social employment hours per building that client is providing by using our services. And one small metric that we like to use is that Ernst and Young were commissioned by Atira to do a study and they found that for every dollar spent on a wage for a person that lives in the DTES saves society about $4 in housing and health etc. And that’s a real measured metric that other companies can’t offer that we do offer. We measure our metrics and let our clients know. On that side of things it’s beneficial that we can say ‘yes’. We used to only be able to sell based on price only because that’s the market. But now we’re saying ‘to use us you need to pay a little more because, one thing we pride ourselves on is we don’t pay minimum wage, we pay a livable wage. So it costs us a lot more to do  business. We have supportive employment behind the scenes. We supply uniforms. We also have a thing called Escape to Nature, which is a property we purchased on the Gulf Islands to send our employees for 2-3 weekends a month for a wellness retreat. Now that’s a huge challenge to get folks from the DTES on 2 ferries out to the Gulf Islands but we do what we can. The Escape to Nature, if the guy lives in the DTES, maybe I’ll take them for a walk to Crab Park for the afternoon, we’ll hang out, look at the mountain, and just benefit from nature. If it’s someone who has what I’ll call medium barriers and they can get there they can go to the property. And then for some of our frontline workers, or management who dedicate a lot of their time, they just go there to recharge their batteries, turn their phone off, I don’t have any internet at the property intentionally so no one can go online or check their emails unless they use data. So that’s just another thing that sets us apart from regular companies. It’s shocking when we get feedback from other junk removal companies about what they pay their staff. It’s up to a $10 a difference per hour.

Alasdair: Have you experienced a change in the attitude about the value that cleaners and sanitation workers provide because of the pandemic? 

Dylan: I think so. We got quite a bit of publicity from this. So people who wanted to understand what it was that this social enterprise was doing when so many other social enterprises were shutting up shop and closing down.  We were actually advertising saying: “we are here if you need our services”. It actually got to the point where we had to turn down one of our largest clients because we just couldn’t cope. That was actually damaging for us really in some ways. But we had to manage the capacity because everybody was under stress. we noticed that there was a bit more violence in the community than normal. That was spilling over from…usually if there is an issue in the DTES people take care of it within  their own, like peer to peer. But there were issues with people confronting people who were not from the DTES. There was a lack of police presence. It was just unusual and we could feel that the whole community was feeling the effects of COVID and they were quite isolated at one point. And so the social enterprises are just trying to do their best when a lot of other groups were just at home self- isolating. The residents really felt forgotten in some ways. I can’t be sure but that was the consensus from a group of the other non- profits and social enterprises that were meeting on a regular basis. We were all feeling the tension in the community. 

Alasdair: What is CleanStart BC’s role within the coordinated community response network?  

Dylan: Our role was to offer our services to non-profit and the City of Vancouver but we didn’t necessarily, the city didn’t take us up on an offer.  We had an idea to equip the tenants in the rooming houses that are privately owned and that don’t have funding. We came up with an idea that we could provide a smaller scale version, equip the tenants like a bottom up way of doing things that they themselves could do the sanitation if they followed our guidelines. For whatever reason that didn’t fly with the city. We just were there by additional support. We partnered with Embers, some of their work dropped off so we became an important client to them during that period. So that network was like support. And we also had some advice on some wisdom on how to do things as a go to organization we were heading up the sanitation. We were just there on the pulse and chipping in and giving our perspective and advice to other groups as well.. We were all just networking and trying to share resources, we were offering vehicles to people. The good thing about it being in the DTES is we were actually using hand carts that our staff used. And so some of our vehicles, we have large dump trucks that do all the junk removal type jobs, so we had a few vehicles that were redundant, we offered that to the community of people needed. Not everything was taken up but we were there with the rest of them.