Thursday, July 6, 2006

Carnegie Community Centre members consider pressing for forensic audit

Next Wednesday is welfare day. As welfare cheques appear, services at the Carnegie Centre will begin to disappear. It happens every Welfare Day and continues throughout Welfare Week. When Downtown Eastside residents arrive to study in the Learning Centre, use the 3rd floor Public Computer Lab, surf the internet or read the newspaper in the Seniors Lounge, it is not uncommon for them to be told to take a hike. "We're closed. It's welfare Day."

If a member arrives at Carnegie Centre on the morning of welfare day, they will ocasionally find themselves locked out of the building entirely. The usual crowd will congregate on the steps, noses pressed against the glass doors, watching the clock until 12 noon when the Security guard arrives to open up. For the remainder of welfare day and welfare week, services at Carnegie will be sporadic at best. Even if members manage to get their foot inside the door of the Learning Centre or some other facility, they may be ordered at any moment to evacuate. It's reminiscent of fire drills back in elementary school; one minute you're immersed in your work and the next minute you're being herded out the door.

Welfare week evacuations at Carnegie commonly take place during prime daytime hours when you would least expect an educational institution to close. On welfare day in June at around 1:30 p.m., I had just settled down in front of a computer in the Learning Centre to study web-page design, when I heard the familiar call: "Pack up! We're closing." The monitor was leaving; he was itching to play Poker. It was Welfare Day after all, we were reminded.

On the following welfare day in July, I was again working at a computer in the Learning Centre in the early afternoon when the monitor hollered, "We're closing in 5 minutes! Finish what you're doing!" He was going for a beer. Across the hall were $300,000 worth of management staff, yet delivery of services hinged on whether a drunk went on a binge.

In a second attempt to access a computer on Welfare Day in July, I dropped by the public Computer Lab. Like the Learning Centre, the Computer Lab is on the 3rd floor, just metres from the offices of management staff such as Director Ethel Whitty who commands a $104,000 annual salary. On this day though, computer services would be as scarce as Whitty herself who rarely surfaces at Carnegie. The Computer Lab was shut tight. I tried the Seniors Lounge in the basement two evenings in a row. Ditto.

The Seniors Lounge in the basement is just metres from the office of yet another City supervisor, the Seniors Coordinator. She is perched behind a big-windowed office, commanding a big City salary for keeping Seniors services up and running. She succeeds three weeks a month, but on welfare week all bets are off. The day after last welfare day -- a day which feels like Boxing Day at Carnegie since welfare day has taken on the aura of a statutory holiday -- it was about 4 p.m. and I was immersed in internet research while the man next to me took a spin on the Mavis Bacon Typing Tutor. Then came the call to evacuate. The coffee seller announced that we had five minutes to leave. He emptied the coffee pots and switched off the big screen TV to encourage people to get a move on. Actually, this was my lucky day. The next day, I wouldn't even get in the door. The place was in darkness, the glass doors locked, the much-in-demand Vancouver Public Library computers sitting idle in the corner.

Not only is the Seniors Lounge too often in the dark but so are funders. Funders are led to believe that this Lounge is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. They are fed the standard 'poverty pimp' line that the Lounge provides a safe place for DTES residents wishing to bypass the bar and street scene. Yet on the Friday and Saturday night following welfare day, a critical time for recovering alcoholics and addicts wishing to stay clean, the Lounge can't be counted on to be open.

The sudden withdrawal of services on welfare day and welfare week at Carnegie not only affects members arriving for computer, educational, or seniors services. It affects those who arrive for a meal or a cheap 75 cent bowl of soup. Food services become unstable at Carnegie during welfare week. Actually, they are becoming increasingly unstable throughout the month, a deterioration that coincided with the arrival of Director Ethel Whitty and her super-sized salary. There was a time when the government-subsidized cafeteria closed at 9 pm., then closing time was moved up to 8:30 pm., now it is not uncommon for closing time to be shortly after 7 pm. On welfare week, it closes much earlier. It has even been known to close in mid-afternoon for a few hours.

Arriving to find food services closed is particularly frustrating for the working poor who live in rooms with only hotplates and rely on Carnegie. They can't always make it back to the DTES from work on the bus before the cafeteria closes. People don't stop eating because it's welfare day.

If a member questions the lack of services on welfare day and during the subsequent week, they are encouraged by the almost one million dollars worth of Carnegie staff, from clerical up to top management, to blame the "volunteers." Volunteers are people who perform labour at Carnegie for 80 cents an hour, despite the fact that the Centre is obscenely overstaffed with CUPE members and management on every floor, with the exception of the 2nd which houses the kitchen. The 80 cent per hour wage is paid in the form of two coffee tickets, worth 40 cents each. These tickets can be exchanged in the cafeteria for either a coffee or, if 7 or 8 are saved up, a meal. At a time when Nike is distancing itself from the slave wage business, the lefties running the Carnegie are in it knee deep.

And the Canadian Union of Public Employees are in it knee deep too. They allow these people to work for 80 cents an hour alongside CUPE members, apparently placated by the greasing of their palms with union-dues from the bloated workforce supervising and entertaining these "volunteers". CUPE has been placated as well by the operation of the Centre as a front organization for the perennial re-election machine of labour-friendly politicians, Libby Davies and Jenny Kwan.

How can a Centre with a wage bill approaching a million dollars make public services dependent on whether people earning pennies an hour turn up? Yet that is exactly what Carnegie Centre services depend on. Ask any staff person why a given service is closed down and you will get the same answer: "The volunteer didn't show up." You are encouraged to take your concerns to the next "Volunteer Meeting". Blame the volunteers.

Carnegie staff are of course aware in advance that volunteers will be scarce during welfare week. They have learned from experience that people working for pennies an hour will have better things to do when they have anywhere from $150-$550 (depending of which of the 3 welfare rates they get) in discretionary income in their pocket after their rent is paid on welfare day. Staff know from experience that these people will be trekking out to Save On or down to the Army & Navy to stock up on food before the cheque gets frittered away. And they know that a few will top off their shopping spree with a cold draft at the Pacific pub.

One would expect that the roughly half a million dollars worth of management talent stretching from the 3rd floor to the basement at Carnegie would prepare for the monthly shortage of cheap labour by doing what skilled managers are expected to do: make contingency plans. But they don't. I have gone to Carnegie Centre for 18 years on and off and have never seen a contingency plan in place for a welfare week.

One would think that contingency plans for welfare week would at least cross the mind of Carnegie's Volunteer Coordinator with her five figure annual salary. But this 'shop 'til you drop' kind of woman who manages to have an outfit for every contingency, has never applied her skill set to welfare week. And neither has the Assistant Volunteer Coordinator.

The same mistakes are made month after month, year after year. Take the repeated scheduling of a self-described recovering alcoholic and drug addict as the monitor in the Seniors Lounge on the Friday and Saturday nights immediately following welfare day. This woman's attendance record has established that she is otherwise occupied on the weekend following welfare day. Yet staff blithely schedule her for the same shifts, knowing that the Lounge is as good as closed on those weekend evenings.

In fact, services are all too often available in the Seniors Lounge not because of the half a million dollars worth of management talent but in spite of them. Members were rescued last month when a volunteer -- a crusty Croatian who is reportedly the only one who regularly balances the cash register -- stuck around to do double and triple shifts. Another volunteer also pinch hit by doing a double shift, but by 4 p.m. he was burned out and closed shop.

A former Board member at the DTES Women's Centre who arrived to find the Carnegie Learning Centre closed twice last welfare week, is all too familiar with the problem of government-funded services not reaching the targeted DTES population. She played a central role in cleaning up corruption at the Women's Centre and got the top brass fired. She believes that there is nothing complicated about the resistance of Carnegie staff to reversing service shut downs during welfare week. It's self-serving, she believes. "They just want a week off."

With a multi-million dollar annual budget to operate the Centre and a membership too often standing on the outside looking in, the Carnegie Community Centre is becoming a microcosm of a third world country. There are those in the top echelons with the bloated earnings who insulate themselves from the masses. There are the people working for peanuts. There are the puppet elected officials. And there are the government funded services which never fully trickle down to the people who need them. Did I mention that the Carnegie Assistant Director has bought himself a yacht?

How can we ensure that publicly funded services no longer get disappeared during welfare week? That is the $104,000 question that Ethel Whitty does not dare answer. The answer is of course obvious to taxpayers. Staff could easily fill in for the pennies-an-hour workers who don't show up. They could take some paper work and sit in a corner of the Learning Centre or Seniors Lounge and keep these services open. The Volunteer Coordinator and the Assistant Coordinator could be the first in line to fill in. Other supervisory and management staff could be next in line, taking turns being on stand by.

The hours of some daytime staff might have to be altered during welfare week to make them available to fill in for evening no shows. A few job descriptions could be altered to make select staff persons permanent floaters during welfare week.

Let's talk turkey. If one of the top level managers was laid off and the funds diverted towards increasing coffee ticket currency provided to volunteers, they would be more likely to show up for shifts. To have both a Director and an Assistant Director at Carnegie -- the Assistant Director presents himself to members as running the place -- is excessive. For three months, there was an obscene doubling up of Directors, with the former Director taking 3 or 4 months to lead the new Director around on training wheels. Come on. The population of regulars using the Centre is no larger than most high schools, and there are no parents to deal with.

You know that you've got Directors with less than a full plate when they find time to permanently bar the husband of a supervisor whom the Assistant Director is in a sexual relationship. You're tax dollars at work.

The denial of services by Carnegie to the DTES population is actually more broadly executed than through the closing of facilities during welfare week. It is executed daily through forced membership attrition. Trivial excuses are used to bar people from the Centre, a problem that has reached an epidemic level. A Cobalt Hotel resident who has lived on the DTES for 30 years and used the Carnegie almost daily since it's opening, notes that that none of his friends use Carnegie anymore -- they've all been barred. This man himself was once barred; despite no history of violence, he was barred for playfully performing a meme of a punch to the side of the head of a friend who had burped in his face.

Verbal freedom of expression is most often the basis for barring a member. Phil, a security guard who has in the past functioned as Acting Manager, last year demonstrated how readily this abuse of power is resorted to when he publicly scolded two women in the cafeteria: "One more word out of either of you and you're barred." Such chronic culling of the membership is a reflection of the lack of commitment on the part of supervisory and management staff to maintaining the link between DTES residents and services taxpayers have purchased for them.

Year after year Carnegie management contracts with government funders to provide services to the DTES population 365 days a year from 9 am. to 11 pm. Year after year, they re-neg. This constitutes theft of services from low-income residents who buy Carnegie memberships. Lately, there has been an increase in chatter around the Centre about the need for a forensic audit. The time has come.

Update as of November 31, 2006:
This article was posted in July 2006 and since then there has been some improvement in the provision of services at Carnegie during Welfare Week. Over the last two or three months, sporadic closing of the Seniors Lounge during Welfare Week has ceased. [There are still major problems though. There is rarely more than one woman using the Seniors Lounge, more often none, due to the male oriented programming -- at times shockingly misogynous -- played on a surround-sound tv at deafening noise levels. Even many men claim they can't stand the noise and the mindless programming -- some claim they would prefer to watch political or science shows -- leading to the Seniors Lounge being dubbed the Lowest Common Demoninator Lounge.]

There is still much room for improvement at Carnegie in maintaining access to public computers. This past welfare week, the computer room was closed for two shifts, each shift being 4 hours in length -- there may have been more closures of this service that weren't reported to the DTES Enquirer. On welfare morning, the Carnegie Centre was closed entirely from 9 a.m. - 12 p.m. This evening, the cafeteria closed an hour early, which is hard on the working poor trying to make it to the cafeteria at a time when, as Ethel Whitty is aware, the snow has slowed down bus and skytrain service.