Monday, March 15, 2010

UBC Learning Exchange Flirts with Funding Fraud

The UBC Learning Exchange on the Downtown Eastside is dabbling in the type of funding fraud that was prevalent at Carnegie Centre for years: taking money from taxpayers to provide services to low income people and then locking the doors to those services for the flimsiest of reasons.

Despite making a big deal in the media about the services they provide to the Downtown Eastside poor, staff at the UBC Learning Exchange have begun locking the poor out of the Learning Exchange on Mondays. Monday is a day when most taxpayers would expect a richly funded educational facility to be open and operating full tilt. But the poor arrive and find the door locked and peer in to see povertarians sittin' pretty.

You can bet the povertarians haven't mentioned this to funders.

Dionne Pilan, Co-ordinator of the Learning Exchange, did tell Downtown Eastside "learners" at the Learning Exchange that she planned to lock them out one day a week. In a classic povertarian "exchange" with learners, she asked them what day would be the least worst for them to have the facility closed. Most people chose Wednesday. "We decided on Monday," she reportedly announced. No mention of who "we" was, but presumably it included the Director, Margo Fryer, and others on their 17 member staff, some of whose jobs are fundraising. "Did she ask if Monday was ok with you?", I asked users of the Exchange. No, was their answer.

Pilan explained that staff had decided on Monday because they figured Downtown Eastsiders were too stupid to remember that the Learning Exchange was closed on Wednesday. Actually, she avoided the word stupid. She said, according to Downtown Eastsiders who were reliving the experience at Waves just down the street, that staff believed it would be too difficult for them to remember that the Learning Exchange was closed on Wednesday; Monday would be easier to remember.

The poor actually have no difficulty remembering where they can get a free coffee on the Downtown Eastside and on what day. Coffee is bait UBC uses to lure the poor into the Exchange.

And the poor are smart enough to figure out, as one man who no longer goes to the Learning Exchange said, "'Dionne wants a long weekend." Of course, it is not the sort of long weekend where she can stay home, but it's a slack day. "Any day that she doesn't have to deal with you guys is like a day off", he said. He also offered an explanation for why Dionne chose Monday, over Wednesday, to lock out the poor. She can already count on a slack day one Wednesday a month, on welfare cheque Wednesday, a day when many regulars at the Learning Exchange have more pressing business to take care of, like shopping. If you were already basically getting one Wednesday a month off, he asked, "Wouldn't you chose Monday to close? That gets you an extra day."

Poor but not stupid.

By locking the doors on Monday, Pilan and Fryer end up short-changing the poor for the entire week, particularly on Tuesdays. There is a bottleneck on Tuesdays, caused by people who after a weekend without computer access couldn't get access to one on Monday to check email, etc. People get less computer time as the receptionist who signs people on and off computers is under pressure to cycle them through fast.

Pilan's excuse for closing the Learning Exchange one prime time day a week is that she can write grant proposals for new programs, like a program to teach Downtown Eastsiders how to teach computer skills to others for money. Let's get this straight: she's locking the poor out of services she's funded to provide to them in order that she can write proposals for more funding to provide services to the poor. She reportedly said she had two grant proposals to write and, 'I
can't do that and deal with you people at the same time.'

Here's the dirty secret: she doesn't have to deal with them. The receptionist does that. Sometimes there are even two receptionists. Pilan comes out of her office to chat and socialize with Downtown Eastsiders, to talk about the Olympics or whatever. It's possible she may also cover for a receptionist on a break. Sometimes, I'm told, she also occasionally comes out if there is a computer question that a receptionist can't answer, but that if she were writing a grant proposal, people could simply be told that their question would have to wait until the next day.

Downtown Eastsiders suspect they've been duped, that a closure that was sold to them as temporary, is actually permanent. The sign on the Learning Exchange door announces, "New Hours", not temporary new hours. How long does it take to write two grant proposals? Surely not more than a month of Mondays. The Exchange has been closed for two Mondays now.

If Dionne's grant proposals are not written soon and the Learning Exchange re-opened, the poor have their own proposal: that funds earmarked for providing them with computer facilities on Mondays be returned.

One Small Step for Skip Everall, One Giant Step for Carnegie Membership

It's the same old story. I hear it so many times.

A photographer complained last week to Carnegie Security boss Skip Everall about the threats being directed at him when he attempts to use Vancouver Public Library computers at Carnegie Centre. The photographer said a native woman -- he said her name -- who is sometimes on duty as computer monitor is abusing her access to publicly funded Carnegie "security" guards. If an issue comes up with a computer user (sometimes issues have to be worked out such as whose turn it is on the waiting list) that actually requires communication, she skips the communication, and tells the person, "I'm calling security." End of discussion. If the person doesn't become passive, she carries through with the threat.

Last week, this monitor threatened to call security on this photographer when a disagreement arose. She didn't actually carry through with the threat on that occasion, but she has previously, so he lodged a verbal complaint with Carnegie Security Co-ordinator, Skip Everall.

The photographer did not know that he was not the first person to lodge a complaint about the use of the threat at Carnegie to "call Security" as a substitute for communicating with Downtown Eastsiders. This substitution was previously brought to the attention of City Manager Penny Ballem in writing in 2009 and during a meeting in January 2010. The photographer used a term that others have used though, to describe this substitution: "bullying".

The photographer was not unhappy with Everall's response. Everall told him that this particular computer monitor had been doing that often.

This is a step forward. Everall was essentially admitting that the right to call security is being abused at Carnegie, at least in this case. Mind you, this computer monitor is a volunteer; it is unlikely that Everall would make such an admission in cases where the threat was being uttered by staff, his fellow CUPE members -- and there are many such cases.

Everall's admission is nonetheless a step in the right direction in a City of Vancouver community centre where threats to call security have become the default method of dealing with low income people who know their rights and expect them to be respected.