Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Game at Poverty Olympics: Stretching the Truth

With just 2 years to go before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Poverty Olympics were held on Sunday. Participants marched up Hastings St. to Carnegie Center on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside carrying an Olympic torch and a banner in which the Olympic rings were handcuffs. Inside the Carnegie Center theatre, a packed audience watched as medals were awarded for such games as: Welfare Hurdles, Bed Bug Broadjump, Buy-athon, and Poverty Line High Jump.

But another game was clearly being played here: Stretching the Truth.

Jean Swanson (photo above), representing 'Raise the [Welfare] Rates' and the 'Carnegie Action Project', told the crowd that one reason the Poverty Olympics had been organized was to draw the world's attention to the fact that: "People in Canada, like people in poorer countries, have to search through garbage for food and things to sell. In Canada. So they can survive."

Swanson deserved a medal, at least a silver. She must have spent years in training to stretch the truth that far.

Nobody in Vancouver needs to go through garbage as a means of survival. Bill Simpson, a homeless man on the Downtown Eastside, says he doesn't get welfare, has no source of income, yet never goes through the garbage. He eats at the charity places, the Salvation Army and churches which offer free meals on a daily basis. And he stays clean by using the free showers and laundry at the City-run Evelyn Saller Center.

In most cases, people who choose to "search through garbage. . . for things to sell" are addicts, according to a former worker at the United We Can Bottle Recyling Depot, a Downtown Eastside facility were poor people get cash for bottles and cans they have collected from garbage dumpsters. No amount of welfare will ever be enough.

For a few non-addicts, collecting bottles and cans is a way of earning 'under the table' cash that welfare can't claw back. They use the money to buy extras, on top of the food allowance they get from welfare. I have spoken several times -- this was a couple of years ago now -- to a "binner", roughly 30 years old, who said he can't be bothered with the welfare hassles, so he collects bottles and cans full time and sleeps outside. But he's amongst a small minority of binners. Most are on the welfare rolls. Why do you think United We Can Bottle Depot closes for half a day on welfare cheque day? Business is slow that day.

United We Can also operates a program offering binners a few hours work a week sweeping alleys. But many prefer the freedom of binning over having to show up at a job at a specified time.

With a strong performance in the first leg of “Stretch the Truth”, Swanson entered the second leg: "We're also holding these Olympics because Mayor Sullivan's Civil City[Project] is cracking down on all the things that people have to do to survive when they can't get welfare or when they do get welfare and it's too low to live on. He's doing things like locking garbage bins, arresting panhandlers. . . ."

Swanson was a now a contender for the Gold. To claim that panhandling is something people “have to do to survive” in Canada, is such a stretch.

The thriving poverty industry on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has created a plethora of free food places. Every week day morning the Dug Out Drop-in, for example, gives out hot soup and coffee. Homeless Bill Simpson has never panhandled and he is no where close to starvation. In fact, he was at the Sally Ann soup truck on Main St. Sunday night having a piping hot bowl of vegetable soup, along with bread and sandwiches. Sometimes he goes back for seconds. Various Christian churches both in and out of the Downtown Eastiside neighborhood also have regularly scheduled nutritious meals. And a Sikh Temple has a popular meal, although they have recently nixed the chapatis. This is Vancouver's free food "circuit".

Swanson was by no means a shoe-in for the Gold, though, in the “Stretch the Truth” event. She saw stiff competition from Kelly, a woman also representing the Carnegie Action Project. Kelly announced that the “Welfare Hurdles Race” would begin: "This is a race where penniless, homeless, sick people, unable to read and write, will be attempting to jump over hurdles or under hurdles trying to keep them off welfare, and hungry and homeless."

Kelly wowed the crowd with the stretch that the welfare office in Vancouver is trying to “keep” people “hungry”. A truly remarkable stretch. The amount of free food given out in Vancouver would make it difficult for anyone to stay hungry.

Kelly concealed something here, something now showing up like steroids in a urine test. Rather than making the homeless jump welfare hurdles, the government is actually expediting the welfare process for the homeless. Street worker Nancy Graves told the Vancouver Sun last year that her job is to walk the streets and approach homeless people, use her contacts at the
welfare office to get them immediately onto the welfare rolls, and get them a place to live. And Graves is not the only street worker on the Downtown Eastside, although she may be the only one whose job description is restricted to expediting welfare and getting people into housing.

A Downtown Eastside resident told me that she saw another street worker, Bernadette, helping a street person at the wicket in the welfare office about six months ago. In addition to street workers, there are welfare advocates at First United Church, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association and elsewhere to help people get on welfare.

It is a fact that a few years back, the provincial government created hurdles to getting on to welfare and staying on for a long period of time. Hurdles such as a three week waiting period before being eligible for welfare, may continue to be enforced -- I haven’t checked. But the hurdle in the form of a two year time limit for an employable person to remain on welfare is simply not being enforced, according to people on the Downtown Eastside who have been on welfare over two years.

The claim that the welfare office is turning away people who are “unable to read and write” is yet another remarkable stretch. Possibly record-setting. It is common to come across people in Downtown Eastside welfare culture who do not have much formal education, but it is rare to find someone completely “unable to read and write”. In 20 years on the Downtown Eastside, I have known just one completely illiterate man, an aboriginal man from the Canadian prairies whose mother hid him from agents arriving to take him to residential schools. He's on welfare, has been for years.

The Poverty Olympics were clearly an effort to inflict some world class embarrassment on the provincial government, to pressure them to cough up some dough in this month's provincial budget. Bob Sarti, Master of Ceremonies dressed as an alternative Olympic mascot, “Chewy the Rat”, told the crowd that press releases had been sent out “all over the world” resulting in an article on the event turning up in Pravda.

Swanson, in addition to announcing to the crowd that February 19th was budget day, accused the government of not honoring the committment about "housing and inclusion" that it had made when we won the 2010 Olympics. They have ignored the recommendations of a government-created committee that 3,200 units of social housing be built as part of the Olympics plan. At least 1.3 billion dollars must be in the upcoming budget to end the homelessness and increase welfare rates, Swanson told a cheering crowd. The Poverty Olympics are being held to "tell this government that they have a fantastic opportunity," she said. "Ending poverty and homelessness could be an Olympic legacy.”
(photos courtesy of dag)


reliable sources said...

A noteworthy comment was left by AmyJudd when this article was posted on the NowPublic news site:

"I wrote my thesis on the affects of the Olympics on the Downtown Eastside population and one key facts that I discovered is that the homeless population in general has decent access to supplies, shelter and most importantly, food at all times of the day. Now I'm not saying that 'oh my gosh it must be so great to be homeless then', I just mean that not one of the homeless people I interviewed (which was alot) said they ever had to go through the garbage to eat or survive."

Dag said...

Not to be grumpy but why does it take a graduate student to point out the obvious?

Of course it doesn't, it takes a povertarian to point out the ludicrous and a fool to believe it.

truepeers said...

Which begs the question, why do we nonetheless often see people going through the garbage and eating it? It's not simply because they're addicts, because the free food apparently widely available does not come at the expense of cash otherwise used, though for scavenger-addicts in a hurry it may be a question of time or convenience...

Is not part of the problem that we as a society have become unwilling to allow much judgment on mental illness and to consider institutionalization as appropriate for many now on the streets?

Dag said...

"Free food" comes at a price some ar not willing to pay: It costs in terms of having to stand in a line-up with other people and then to sit with other people and behave like some kind of normal human being, which most looking for a free meal can at least fake for a short time a few times per day. But where I go for coffee in the evening there is a small army of those committed to living "free" even beyond the price of minimal civility: they cannot or will not behave to the smallest degree like human beings, instead turning out in force like talking beasts, threatening, grabbing, even fighting with those who are subjected to their depravation. Not deprivation, depravation.

Because society determines that there are no legitimate borders for the individual, that all are free to pursue their own lights, that those who are violent and insane are merely acting out some past conflict with malign authority, the violent and the insane are encouraged to pursue their own destruction to the death while they are celebrated in the reportage of Povertarianism as "victims" and martyrs of an unfeeling and uncaring society of the greedy who do not care.

When society is fed garbage from the socialist bin as its intellectual diet for a few generations, then yes there will be feral people eating out of literal garbage bins because Human worth will have decayed in the mire of ideology and reference to "The Masses" and preference for "The Masses" at the expense of people as people, people as those who are private and real. "The People" replace the people, and some, marginal at best, become feral at best when they are made into cartoons and prop for a povertarian play of the mind.

When we see people picking through garbage bins for food we are witnessing a religious ceremony of the Left in action. None complain about the feral for aesthetic reasons, and few complain at all from fear of being "judgmental." It would be like farting loudly in church to complain about the feral, regardless of the scene they make. And the scene they make is one of our current Religion of Poverty, hence Povertarianism.

Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the Earth. And so on. And the "rich"? Evil, of course, and guilty. The mock-Christians who conduct this religious ceremony of poverty preach fire and brimstone to the assembled congregants, passing the plate continuously as they do so. Pay up or go to Hell. The poor are blessed, the rich are guilty of sins....

The missionary minders feed on the garbage of a corrupt system of socialist povertarianism. They create poverty by creating the conditions from which the poor-minded cannot escape if they choose to. Mental illness, drug addiction, personality disorders? None of those issues can be addressed in reality or effectively because there would then be a pricking of the povertarian balloon they all live inside, the one that clouds personhood and responsibility and the freedom to be one among many rather than a mere cartoon on some office worker's wall, a blurred face in the "community" of Man.

The povertarian poseur absolves all "victims" of their sins by taking on the sins to themselves and then passing them on to the general population, "the sinners." We are all guilty! We are all sinners! Repent!

The socialist religious fanatic is a menace who causes needless suffering and death in a puritanical zeal to condemn all freedom and to destroy all personal relations as "greedy" and "unsustainable." Do nothing, be nothing, make nothing, have nothing, and then in a state of poverty one might be saved if one goes ever so far as to "have to" eat out of garbage bins.

These evil religious fanatics should be crucified, in my humble opinion, and the "victims" should be made to behave themselves, even if it's my middle-clas standard they should try to adhere to, me being no one in particular but my standard being "standard," therefore the enforceable norm we should all be able to expect in a fee nation.

No man is free who lives like an animal. No one is free who is in bondage to the religious fanatic who hounds him. No one is free who has no identity or core of his own being. Those people are merely feral and the wind-blown stuff of a wasted life.

Who am I to say so? I'm one who rebels in a state of personal freedom against the religious fanatics.

truepeers said...

When we see people picking through garbage bins for food we are witnessing a religious ceremony of the Left in action

-brilliant: the sacrificial violence behind the ethic of radical "freedom" to go feral is revealed.

reliable sources said...


You're right, there is something "mock Christian" about this exercise. As I listened to Jean Swanson give her speech in a sad, compassionate drone, I flashed back to sitting in a pew in the Anglican church as a kid. She sounded just like the minister used to sound. I felt that slightly car sick feeling I used to get on long, boring rides in the backseat of my parents' car, asking "Are we there yet?"

Interesting, Swanson's spouse, Sandy Cameron, was trained as an Anglican minister. I think I read that on the back of one of his books. He's a self-trained historian and writes about the almost perfect poor. (I did learn a little from him though, about the long march to Ottawa from Carnegie Center in the 1930s.)

Dag said...

In my haste to conclude my comment I wrote off the top on my head in such a way that as soon s I posted the comment I wished I hadn't done so as it was. My conclusion, such as it is, is weak and probably banal, the point of my middle-class values being universal and provably better than nihilism and religious socialism, social gospelism. I do have a legitimate argument and it does take a few days of writing to lay it out in one short essay, which I can do here, but which I can address piecemeal if anyone cares to debate it at that level.

I do not know Jean Swanson, never met her, and have no personal feelings toward her. From what I've herd she is a nice person, which is nice.