Monday, July 27, 2009

Too Pretty to be Poor

Garrett used to be homeless, going through McDonald's garbage cans for food. But he never had the ragged, dirty, down and out look.

It was during Garrett's homeless period that he discovered that you could drop into the St. Vincent de Paul store on Main St. on a Monday and they would give you one of the bags of canned food that they kept in the back. They had some sort of food bank operation going.

Earlier this month, I ran into Garrett who now at 44 yrs. old has a place to live; he gets free rent in exchange for a bit of maintenance work. And he gets casual paid work as a self-trained mechanic. But money is tight so he dropped by St. Vincent de Paul for a bag of food. They turned him away. There would be no canned food for him; they would give him only a bag of scones. "If I was unshaven, and smelly, and if my clothes were rumpled, they would have given me a bag [of canned food]," he blurted out. That was the second week in a row that he'd been turned away. Two women working there have separately turned him away. "They must think I'm a scammer," he says.

Garrett said that the two women working there are immigrants. They probably got help when they arrived, he says. And now they're in the business of cherry-picking who gets help. And their method amounts to eye-balling.

Just after getting turned away from the food bank, Garrett went to the IGA on Main St., bought a can of tuna and a loaf of bread, and sat inside McDonald's making himself a couple of straight tuna sandwiches, no mayonaise. He had a bit of money in his pocket, but he said that bag of food would have fed him for about three days.

I ran into Garrett again today. He said he's trying to sell his car which he doesn't drive, but he's not optimistic about finding a buyer in this recession. I asked him if he has been turned away from St. Vincent de Paul since I last talked to him. He shook his head. "I never went back."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Downtown Eastsider who sent Obama a Threatening Letter Arrested

Photo: George stands in front of the UBC Learning Exchange. He asked a Downtown Eastsider with a camera to take this photo; I think it was taken in early 2009 but I haven't had a chance to talk to the photographer. George was wearing his Alaska t-shirt but did not yet have his Sarah Palin glasses.

I asked Dale, a homeless guy with a shopping cart who hangs out in front of McDonalds restaurant at Terminal & Main, where George was. "You know George, the guy who wears the navy blue t-shirt with FBI on the front," I said, prompting Dale's memory. "The cops picked him up," said Dale who used to sleep in the same spot as George under a bridge. "He was threatening people."

Don't get me wrong, George wasn't threatening his friends and acquaintances around the Downtown Eastside. He was actually quite affable, always quick to call out, "Hi!"

Downtown Eastsiders had cautioned George, who was a fixture around the Downtown Eastside with his shopping cart -- "my carriage," he called it -- that he couldn't go around threatening people. You just can't send President Obama a letter warning him,"You're dead", he was told when he showed the letter with the fax receipt stapled to it. You can get arrested for that; you can do jail time, people warned him. But George would remind people of the reason he was immune from prosecution. "I'm George Washington incarnate."

George had recently been notified that he had inherited money from his half-brother. He showed the will to people on Whopper Wednesday at Burger King, and at other places too; it had an official red seal in the upper corner. He said that when he got the inheritance, "I want to get a room in a rooming house." On the front page of the will was the name of a Montreal law firm, along with their address and telephone number. George said he phoned them and threatened them.

Long before George learned of his inheritance or threatened Obama, he had been regularly dropping into the University of British Columbia Learning Exchange on Main St. near Keefer to use the free phone. He would phone the Canadian Security Intelligence Service [CSIS] and threaten to bomb them. Once CSIS returned the call and spoke to a staff person at the Learning Exchange, according to George. The staff person told George not to use their phone again.

But George needed access to a telephone on another day, so he told staff at the Learning Exchange that he just needed to make a quick call. He made it quick, the call to CSIS, threatening them.

UBC Learning Exchange staff banned George from the premises. I know that because I was walking past with a couple of friends in the spring when George, standing out front on the sidewalk, asked a woman with us if she would do him a favor and go inside and fill up his coffee cup. The Learning Exchange provides free low quality coffee to attract the poor, keep the sign-in numbers up, and keep the funders believing they are helping ahelluvalot of down and outters turn their lives around.

UBC President Stephen Toope who helped himself to $565,000 in income and perks last year will never mention George, the guy they kicked to the curb. All the networking these UBC povertarians do at their catered openings and socials at the Learning Exchange -- Toope gave a speech at one last November -- you would think they would have a few names in their Rolodex like homeless advocate Judy Graves to call and ask, "Is there anything you can do here?"

Standing on the sidewalk out front of the UBC Learning Exchange, George was always friendly, stopping people to chat, most recently about his new Sarah Palin rimless glasses that he got a kick out of wearing with his Alaska t-shirt. Dionne, the Learning Exchange Co-ordinator, a white woman who likes to remind people that's she's really Black -- a sort of Michael Jackson in reverse -- would stand just feet from him when she ducked outside to stand in the sunshine on her breaks, taking long drags from her cigarrette, escaping into her novel.

"They were looking for him," Dale said. Vancouver Police spotted George standing with Dale last month on Hastings St. across from the First United Church. They grabbed him. They told him they were sending him back to where he'd come from; George had always claimed he had been born in the U.S. and had Canadian status. The police took the cheap handcuffs George carried with him -- he claimed to be an under cover FBI agent, which would explain the handcuffs -- and handcuffed his shopping cart to Dale's, creating a headache for Dale. The police told George, "You've been threatening people," Dale recalls. "The cops were laughing at him."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lies Telus Tells

Remember the hippopotamus who used to prance across the tv screen in Telus commercials, the one who eventually ended up dead due to poor treatment. That's my neighbour.

I warned her not to order internet from Telus. But she went ahead, saying they were cheaper than Shaw, and besides she'd had a Telus telephone land line for 20 years.

But after ordering internet service from Telus, she couldn't get the service up and running because she couldn't get through to the technical support line. Her friend who is more tech savy had offered to spend a Sunday evening at her house to help her set it up, but he too became frustrated that they couldn't get through to the tech help line.

My neighbor phoned Telus the following week and cancelled the service. An agent told her she now owes Telus a $120 cancellation fee, that she had a verbal contract with Telus that she must honor.

She says Telus did not honor their verbal contract with her: the contract to provide technical service. She says she emphasized her need for technical service when she spoke to the Telus agent Jeremy who sold her the Telus internet service. Jeremy even checked with one of their technical staff to make certain they could meet her technical needs. He got back to her saying, "They'll walk you through it; just phone the number that comes in the box with the modem."

When she disputed the $120 cancellation fee, a young female agent transferred her to a department with an Orwellian name, "Loyalty and Retention".

Natalie was the agent who took the call in Loyalty & Retention. She had what my neighbor guessed was an Australian accent. Natalie told the customer that she would give her a special phone number -- other than the official one printed on the instructional disk that comes with the modem -- to phone for technical support. "It's like they have this special number to give people who are ready to cancel after they've been put on hold for too long," said my neighbour. Too little to late. "I had packed up the modem and all the cords; everything was back in the box." Telus had lost my neighbour's loyalty.

Natalie was domineering, says my neighbour. "She said I'd be billed the $120 disconnect fee. The customer told her that she had never for one minute actually had an internet connection. Natalie said the internet signal had been running through her line all this time.

My neighbor told Natalie that she was going to fight this as she hadn't agreed to anything, she hadn't signed anything committing to a $120 cancellation fee. But in the interim she felt she couldn't pay her telephone bill because that money might be applied to the disputed internet cancellation fee. "She said I had to pay it or it would be sent to Collections."

Natalie asked her if she wanted to cancel her phone service. She told her she could do it right then and there. "I'll cancel it right now!", she said. That's the loyalty they have to a 25 year customer. "I thought if I cancelled I'd lose my voice mail," says my neighbour, "I had important messages saved and I didn't want to lose them." So she told Natalie, "I'd like to speak to a supervisor first." Natalie said there was no supervisor to speak to, that she was the end of the line. "She was mad", says my neighbour. Natalie asked several times if she wanted her telephone service terminated. "She had her finger on the button", says my neighbour. Disloyalty and Detention.

I later told my neighbour, "Phone back and bypass Natalie." She talked to a young male agent and told him she was afraid to pay her telephone billl for fear the money would go to the disputed $120 fee. He told her to just send the modem back to the Alberta address and give Telus the tracking number so they could confirm it was received. He assured her that then the $120 charge would be taken off her bill. She had no idea he was lying.

She phoned back a week later and gave the tracking number to a female agent. The agent reminded her that she owed a $120 fee. My neighbor explained that the previous man had told her that the cancellation fee had been waived. The agent assured her that she understood and would now waive the cancellation fee. My neighbour had no idea she was lying.

When the customer got her telephone bill, the $120 fee was owing. So she phoned Telus today. She got a female agent with a french accent who said there was a note on the file from Natalie saying that this customer had admitted entering into a verbal contract to pay a $120 cancellation fee. :"I didn't tell her that," my neighbor says.

It was this agent with the french accent who revealed that the previous front-line agents had been lying. She said those agents did not have the authority to waive any fee over $100 and they knew that. My neighbour concludes, "They were just telling me what I wanted to hear and getting me off the line".

Today's agent explained that only the Help Desk can authorize the cancelling of the $120 fee. She went off the line and asked then if they would do it. No way, was their response, the $120 stands. My neighbour asked for the name of the person who had made that decision, so that a record could be kept. The agent said she could "not divulge" that information. She told my neighbour that somebody from" higher up" -- sounds like Loyalty & Retention -- would get back to her today or tomorrow either by telephone or email. Nobody has contacted her yet. But she suspects one thing:

The future is not friendly.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fight Breaks Out in Carnegie Kitchen

Photo: Opening of the Community Court in 2008. Judge Thomas Gove stands on the far right of the photo taken in the internal courtyard.

It's not easy getting volunteers to work alongside well paid union members in the Carnegie kitchen for 80 cents an hour in food stamps. Now the kitchen has started to take "volunteers" who are sentenced to community service by the new Community Court.

A fight that broke out Monday morning in the cafeteria reportedly involved at least one of these petty convicts/volunteers -- although that hasn't been confirmed, the kitchen definitely uses convicts from the Community Court. A volunteer with a long brown ponytail (he is a good volunteer, congenial with customers) and a customer buying breakfast (he also volunteers at Carnegie) started yelling at one another. The volunteer came around the counter to the side where the customer was standing. It got loud -- "Let's go outside!!" And there was a lot of aggressive gesturing.

But there was no actual violence. So spectators were surprised when police showed up later. Maybe if the Community Court is involved, police have to be involved.

Any defense lawyer, though, would be remiss if he or she didn't look closely at the records of staff and management at Carnegie who are writing reports or providing testimony about their clients from Community Court.

At Carnegie, the cons are not only in the kitchen.

There is evidence that when Director Ethel Whitty and Security Co-ordinator are producing reports on low income people, they allow politics to overshadow facts. If a CUPE member is involved in any sort of conflict with a volunteer, the CUPE member will be exonerated. As Whitty stated at a public meeting, "I have to support my staff." Management has been known to be selective about what witnesses they talk to, ignoring any who won't give them the slant they may find most politically desirable. And it is old news that management has been prone to manufacturing witnesses when convenient, not one or two but huge groups of them conjured up after the fact from an almost deserted room. There is even radio tape of Whitty manufacturing false accusations -- accusations that can be indisputably demonstrated to be false -- against a low income man who happened to have fallen out of favor with a CUPE staff person. Both Whitty and Everall should have been disqualified from any involvement with a Community Court.

Not only are convicts placed at risk by being sent to Carnegie for supervision by management staff with a record of operating in a manner, as lawyer Gregory Bruce put it, "contrary to the rule of law", the public is being put at risk by this joint venture between the Community Court and the Carnegie kitchen. A man who uses Carnegie on a regular basis has reported seeing a man injecting drugs into his arm in the alley next to Carnegie and, two or three days later, seeing the same man working in the kitchen at Carnegie. He told kitchen coordinator, Catriona, "You're putting us at risk!"

Judge Thomas Gove designed the Community Court. He got an award for innovation. What can eaters expect to get?

The food at the Carnegie cafeteria is actually good, much better than most cafeterias. They use lots of healthy stuff like kale and chard, which they reportedly get from stores when it is too old to be sold but still good enough to toss into salads.

Would you like the hepatitis dressing?

Michael Jackson Memorial Watched at Pigeon Park

I walked by Pigeon Park this morning and there was a cluster of people sitting on park benches in the drizzle watching Michael Jackson's memorial. They were watching it on a television parked on the sidewalk in front of the second hand store.

I stopped and the words, "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" appeared on a red strip across the bottom of the screen. A native guy standing up close to the tv set turned to me and said, "That's Stevie Wonder singing."

A woman stopped and stood watching. Tears streamed down her face.

As I walked up Hastings St afterwards, I was thinking of Michael Jackson and the presumption of innocence. The enormous resources of the state of California were used in an attempt to convict him of child sexual abuse and he was found not guilty. I don't know what the evidence against him was. When I watched more of the Memorial later on the internet, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was on stage saying that she was following the American way, which is to consider somebody "innocent until proven otherwise".

I didn't like the way Jackson got mixed up with the Nation of Islam though. They're anti-semitic. The bio-mom of Jackson's two oldest children reportedly disapproved of their influence; she's Jewish. Stuart Backerman in Vancouver, who moved to Neverland for three years to be Jackson's publicist, said in a local interview that he left when the Nation of Islam started taking over Jackson's affairs as he didn't agree with their views. In another interview, he said he got "pushed out" by them. But he still "loves" Jackson and prizes the black signature hat Jackson gave him as a gift.

Overall, I find the media hype around Jackson's death and the endless parade of sordid details less captivating than his dancing. (Although I was momentarily captivated by the sight of his two older children with hair obviously died darker for his Memorial, making them match up better with the Jackson family.) I've been largely ignoring the television coverage but I still watch the video of his Bad Tour Live in Japan.