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)

Gang Violence Task Force at No. 5 Orange Again Last Night

Last night, the Gang Violence Task Force was once again at the No. 5 Orange strip bar at Main & Powell St. They were also spotted there the Sunday before last. And once previous to that too. When the Task Force was first set up in 2006 after a series of brazen gang shootings, a member told the media that they would be 'in the faces' of gang members, showing up at places they hang out.

The officers seemed startled when the camera flash went off, says the photographer, "but they were friendly". The white male to the right asked where the photos would be posted. The photographer told him that one of the sites would be, "NowPublic".