Friday, January 22, 2010

Welfare in East Vancouver

Ethan Barron from the Vancouver Province recently published an editorial about welfare in East Vancouver. It was a part of their ongoing series Operation Phoenix.

Ethan's editorial is well written and true enough but I want to shed light on another side so his observations don't get misinterpreted as heartless stereotypes.

When I was young I remember my father telling me about a tradition within the United Church of Canada. First United has always been active in providing nonjudgmental support in East Van. My father told me how one of the traditions in becoming a minister for the United Church was to spend a night on the streets in East Van with a limited amount of money.

The intent of the exercise was to show the minister how hard it is to make ends meet on the street. He talked about how some ministers found shelters and food lines. He also said one minister in particular became very frustrated and overwhelmed with the task. He said she saw first hand how futile the struggle was. She realized that with the money she had, she had to chose between a meal and a night indoors, she couldn't have both.

This minister was so frustrated with the insanity of the task, she bought a large bottle of cheap wine with her money and shared it with the homeless on Pigeon corner. He told the story with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye and explained how many traditional members from the church were somewhat upset with her decision. He relayed the story to me without passing judgement as he thought it was amusing.

Indeed it was but it was sad as well. Sad because it was real. Welfare is not a lot of money. It's next to nothing. If you can't prove you have a permanent residence you even get less. You just get a food allowance not a shelter allowance. Even with the minuscule shelter allowance it really isn't enough to pay for a month in a dirty cheap hotel. For all practical purposes the money they give you for the month is not enough to last the month. So what do you do? It is enough to buy one night of stimulants to numb the pain of living on the street.

Ethan's article is right. This is where the drug dealers cash in. They exploit these people and get rich off them. One retired police officer likened these drug dealers to predators. Rightfully so. Closing down Riverview and putting all the mentally ill on the street was an abomination. Especially when the politicians who did so gave themselves two big fat raises and a gold plated pension after doing so. Abominable.

Not all homeless are mentally ill but many mentally ill are homeless and they end up in East Van because security guards move them on and corral them there. They push them out of Gastown and out of Chinatown and force them into East Van. Sid row as it's known.

Look how hard it is for the average person to make it between paychecks when they get paid every two weeks. Try budgeting your money when you get next to nothing once a month instead of every two weeks. And don't tell me it's easy living off the foodlines. I've volunteered there. Often the food donated is past the expiry date.

I remember seeing one female who looked uncomfortable and ashamed at the foodline. She looked at the mush for dinner and with a tear in her eye looked and me and apologetically said she couldn't eat it. No problem I said and took the plate away to avoid further embarrassment. I could see her pain. She was not scamming the system. She was adjusting to life on the street.

Addiction has always been an element of East Van. If it wasn't heroine or cheap wine it was aftershave which killed brain cells and reduced a person's ability to function. Now the crack epidemic is worse. A crack addict is far more violent than a heroine addict. Getting off the crack when dealers are in your face crying "Crack, Crack, Crack" as soon as you have a couple bucks in your pocket makes overcoming addition next to impossible.

We need to target the predators not the prey. We need to get rid of the crack dealers and the organized "clubs" who bring the cocaine into the country to be sold as crack. Food stamps are good. I'm all for giving the homeless food and shelter. I am opposed to buying them drugs. As Vancouver's Davinci said, staggering welfare payments is also a step forward.

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