Diane’s Blog

Diane is a Downtown Eastside resident and member of Raise the Rates who is blogging about the Vancouver portion of the MLA Welfare Challenge.

Broke and Binning

Posted on January 29, 2012 by

For the last week I’ve been watching Jagrup hold onto his last few dollars, going back to his SRO to cook for himself when he’s hungry, instead of buying a hot dog or a slice of pizza.  What do people do when they’re broke? They start selling things they value or need – their medication, their grandmother’s ring. They panhandle or beg.  I know the overwhelming flood of feelings – frustration, panic and powerlessness – of being flat broke, and never want to experience it again. I’ve collected cigarette butts at bus stops in the middle of the night.  Eventually desperation takes hold and you don’t care who sees you.  But in some situations, you HAVE to have money, you can’t be broke if you have a kid or a pet.  And everyone has a different version of what is honourable and what is humiliating.  Some would rather steal than stand in a food line, and vice versa.

Jagrup was introduced to the Tuesday afternoon group at VANDU; when he asks to borrow money from the members who are going to get welfare on Wednesday, everybody laughed! It’s the 21st Century, but the class system still exists unofficially, with some marginalized groups seen as the Untouchables.  They’re Vancouver’s Untouchables – the acronym VANDU stands for Drug Users.  We told them Jagrup was binning on Saturday, and asked for experienced volunteers to show him how.  The 2 who agreed were Scott Short, a father of 2 kids in foster care, who needs bus fare to visit them, and Mervyn SmallLegs, who bins every day from 7:30 ’til dusk to pay for food, bus fare and cigarettes. These men are hard-working “Front Line Eco-Warriors”, the name David from the Street Market gives them.

The weather was nasty at 9 am Saturday, “couldn’t make up its mind if it was going to rain or snow” Hugh from VANDU said.  Despite this, Scott and Mervyn show up ready to take Jagrup binning.  Scott has a stick for poking garbage bags to determine if they contain bottles or cans.  The first time I saw a binner with a hockey stick, and no skates or equipment, I asked “where’s the game?” Now I know why he carried a hockey stick. Mervyn has on a plastic rain poncho and is wheeling a child’s stroller to carry his
finds.

We headed east in the alleys, tailed by a cameraman from Shaw Cable. There was no dumpster DIVING, they were tall enough to be able to reach over the sides.  We picked up a pair of shoes in good condition which Mervyn said he could sell at the street market for $2, and a plastic garbage can he was going to ask $5 for. They displayed what they’d collected at a press conference Raise the Rates had organized for 11 am.

In dollar value the empties were worth less than minimum wage, and Jean Swanson made the argument that the Welfare System criminalizes a person on IA who bins for extra money, because of the clawback rule that says all income must be declared and deducted from the next check! Scott told us “binning keeps me out of jail” by providing him with money so he doesn’t have to do crime.  This is PEANUTS compared to white collar crime like embezzlement, insider trading and bribery, yet the jails are full of poor people doing what they have to do to survive, and very few Conrad Blacks.

Money Talks

Posted on January 26, 2012 by

Colleen, one of the single moms who spoke to the media on Monday, accompanied Jagrup on check day. They stood in line outside the welfare office on Pwell St. for about an hour, starting at 7:40. Colleen said it was a good day – it wasn’t raining and there are times she has had to wait over 2 hours. Then over to Pigeon Park Savings, take a number and line up for another hour to cash the check.  I guess you all know he’s not really receiving welfare, he has a job; Raise the Rates provided him with $610 for the month.

Then they went to the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House for lunch and an animated 2 hour discussion, some questions, some personal experiences, and a wide range of opinions.  He’s in the DTES for 2 weeks to hear as many stories as possible from the people who live for years on IA and Disability, the stories that never make the news, the slow simmering despair and anger with a system that criminalizes and de-humanizes people.
Many spoke about the charity model of food, that it’s “degrading.” An older woman was passionately eloquent about how it’s “just enough”, so we’re not so hungry we start fighting back. “We’re out of the rain, a roof over our head, bedbugs or not, but that’s not a home! It’s not enough to really live and be part of society, we’re so marginalized, we feel on the outside.  It’s just enough to prevent us from pursuing what actively needs to be changed. We need to re-vitalize our energies and look beyond
the sandwich that we just got.  We have to be seen and we have to be heard, get some momentum going, occupy a welfare office! They did it in Ontario!

“The claw-backs if someone on welfare works part time can end up with them being homeless; if they’re deducted from their next check, they don’t have enough money for the rent.”

“They’re closing Pathways and opening up another one by Woodwards where you’re just a number.  The government gets paid per person who goes there.”

“If the government really wants people to work, they need to subsidize daycare.”

“There’s this attitude that if welfare increases, people are just going to buy drugs.  A small minority will, but don’t make everyone suffer because of them.  They think just because we’re poor, we don’t know how to manage our money.  Do we follow a rich person around and judge how much money they spend on alcohol, or at the casino? Flip it around and see how absurd it is.”

Superbowl Sunday in the Balmoral

Posted on January 23, 2012 by

Superbowl in the Balmoral beer parlour at noon, Ivan from Carnegie Community Action Project has organized a lunch there for the tenants of the Balmoral and Regent Hotels and invited Jagrup, not as a “guest” but as a volunteer – he can eat if he washes dishes.  A lot of people are recognizing him as “the guy on the news” when I explain he’s living down here in an SRO on Cordova St.for the rest of January, and they want to talk to him.

One of the men helping with the meal tells me about his medical situation when I ask if he’s on welfare.  They told him he was ineligible for Disability, even though he’s had 4 heart attacks and his doctor told him not to work. “I shouldn’t even be doing this” he says as he carries the food in, including the bannock her girlfriend made. He’s in some kind of limbo between disability and welfare called “Hardship” – $400 to the hotel for his SRO and $183 support.  Like many others, he’s guarded when asked questions.  People live in FEAR of being cut off welfare or having a stop put on their next check.  When’s there’s no financial cushion for them to fall back on, that means they can’t pay their rent and end up homeless.  Once again I wonder why it’s called Social ASSISTANCE, and Colleen answers it should be called Social Humiliation!

People read my notes as I write down their words and caution me not to make details public that would identify them. When Jagrup asked a man who sells crack pipes how he survives when his $610 runs out, he was deliberately very vague and answered he does “this and that”.  Very often it’s something as innocent as a long term relationship where 2 people live apart and collect checks as single people, because if they receive IA as a couple, it’s less than what their total income is now. When most hotels charge a higher rent for the exact same room if they both live in it, it makes sense for them to maintain this charade.

One woman has a job so she can afford to pay $675/month at the Lotus Hotel. She’s employed by a private company, which made her work for the first 6 months without pay in order to get the job. She’s well aware that her rent is more than a person can afford, and adds that her shower door falls off, she has bedbugs and is constantly sexually harassed and propositioned in the crudest of ways by the male tenants in her building. CCAP did some “field work” on the Lotus  – You will be amazed (or disgusted) that they tell an Aboriginal person that the $675 room rents for $800/month.  We have some concerns that the same landlord owns the York Rooms (that we visited Saturday).

We left the Balmoral and the Superbowl to go to the Sunday Street Market at Pigeon Park.  Because of the rain, it was a slow day, only 55 vendors, or as David the on-site co-ordinator calls them “Front Line Eco-Warriors”. These people recycle everybody’s cast-offs, their own and anything they find dumpster diving. Lorna explains that the police give them tickets for vending on the sidewalk, $250 each time, one guy has gotten 8!  Will someone on welfare ever be able to pay that off?  Well then, he ends up with it on his record, and will eventually do jail time.  In every other part of the city, it’s not illegal to have a garage sale or a yard sale on the sidewalk.  The plain truth stares us in the face as Lorna says “they haven’t got a garage, they haven’t got a yard”! The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council went to the City to get an exemption so vendors wouldn’t get ticketed one day a week at this location. It’s well organized, with some rules in place, like “no pornography or stolen goods”, and a team of volunteers who get breakfast and $10 to set up and clean up.  The City provided them with electricity so customers could test the item they wanted to buy, but mysteriously took it away after 3 weeks.

Another mystery is the disappearing tents, which are supposed to be stored at the Portland Hotel during the week.  The Market started out with 20, and by my count it’s down to 5, as we get wetter and wetter and I look for a dry place to stand. Jagrup pulls out a delightfully colourful child’s umbrella (his daughter’s!) for one of those Kodak moments, but he’s forgotten his gloves and his hands are cold. We talk about his visit to the Regent Hotel yesterday, where 20 people share a bathroom and women are so afraid to use it at night they keep a bucket in their room.

We are standing in front of the new condos on Carrall St.; the notoriously filthy alley next to it looks cleaner than I’ve ever seen it, the American movie crews love filming in our alleys! Sometimes they feed us, some of us get work as extras. One of the volunteers explains to me in a hushed voice that one of the condo owners is VPD, and the Market is being “tested” to see if there’s any garbage there at the end of the day.  “They want to shut us down.” David the Eco-Warrior supervises the clean-up with “Keep Vancouver Spectacular” bags that the garbage truck picks up. He tells Jagrup that Pivot lawyers are going to contest the vending ticket he got, no not here on Sunday afternoon, but this is how he makes enough money to survive the rest of the week.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Posted on January 22, 2012 by

Today we look at housing.  Our guide is Ivan, a community organizer with CCAP.  He introduces the housing tour as the Good, the Bad and the Gentrifying.  We gather on a busy Chinatown sidewalk to see the “Good” – Gena’s apartment in the Lori Krill Housing Co-op.  “Better Homes and Gardens comes visiting” I joke.

At least 5000 DTES residents live in a state of constant anxiety, with the threat of eviction or that the rent could go up beyond their means. Gena’s place is an example of what is possible for low-income renters.  “I’m not being ware-housed” she says. Co-ops and social housing offer rent subsidies, indexed to 30% of what a person makes.  Gena said there’s a 3 year wait list to get one in her building.  Market rent for her apartment is $850, but for her it’s $320, which is less than what Jagrup pays for his much smaller SRO, with no kitchen, and a bathroom he shares with 11 people. “How do you get to a job or an interview on time, when you have to wait in line to use the bathroom?” he wonders.  And she doesn’t have to lean the bed against the wall to let visitors in her place, like he does.

Jagrup calls it a palace compared to his room, which is how most people in the DTES feel when they get a place like this of their own.  Gena explains it was originally intended to be condos, but the initial developer “lost his shirt”.  Is anybody besides me wishing, as she says this, that the site of the old Pantages theatre on Hastings St. could experience the same fate?

Our second stop is to see a “Bad” Regent Hotel room, right next door to the construction site for the new condos where the Pantages used to be. Some of us waited outside while the tour went in, because the room was too small, and we didn’t want to be refused entry with so many of us. A lot of SRO tenants have to deal with illegal repercussions if they speak out; many hotels charge illegal guest fees when someone has their partner stay for the night. One woman even fell to her death, trying to climb in her boyfriend’s window, because they didn’t have the money.

Our third stop is the York Rooms, on Powell St., just north of the courthouse.  I realize, climbing the stairs, that I worked as a home maker in this place 30 years ago, when I first moved here.  I distinctly remember the room I cleaned, with its one window facing the air shaft.  My client was a chronic alcoholic and because of his vulnerable situation and inability to do anything about it, the landlord didn’t provide a mattress, just a wire spring and half a blanket!  The tour crowd into the room, while I talk to Sherman who lives in the adjacent room, and had popped his head out the door to see what’s going on.  He opens the door wider to give me a look at his home – “No fridge, that’s a luxury! No toilet, I haven’t had a toilet in 25 years!” This rooming house is undergoing slow gentrification: when someone “is sick of it and moves out” he says, or is evicted, their room gets a coat of paint and the rent goes from $425 to $525! He shakes Jagrup’s hand and suggests he go to the Salvation Army Harbour Light for supper at 4:30, a 45 minute line-up, which stretches to the end of the block and into the alley.  Jean Swanson told me today that of the 100 people asked why welfare should be raised at Wednesday’s Meet & Greet, the number one answer was “so we don’t have to stand in food lines”!

Meet and greet

The theatre of the Carnegie Community Centre filled with about 100 people to meet Jagrup this morning [January 18].  Everyone wanted to know how much he has left – $11 + change.  The chairs were in a circle and the mic was on a cord long enough to be taken to each speaker.  Wendy from CCAP asked what people on welfare and diasbility do to survive, as Jagrup hears again and again, what we all know, that you can’t live on what the government gives you.  Another mother told me she won’t be able to celebrate her kid’s birthday, which was yesterday, until next week when she gets her cheque.

Many people volunteer at centres where they are paid in food, like the Carnegie.  We heard answers like dog-walking, baby-sitting, or selling rice crispie squares on the street, where there’s a thriving black market; a man who helped me put up posters for the event tried to sell me cigarettes and Starbucks coffee beans.  The people telling their experiences at the Meet & Greet didn’t feel they had to lie, even though any undeclared income is considered “fraud”.  We see “Binners” all the time, of every age and race, with shopping carts or enormous garbage bags full of empties they cash in at the Bottle Depot.  In the DTES it’s a viable way to earn money, but I saw a man binning in Kits, who was mocked loud enough for him to hear by a group of real estate yuppies drinking lattes. I was uncomfortable and a little angry.  I told my friend “that wouldn’t happen in the DTES!”  However, we know that just by living here, we all get lumped into the dope addict “you-just-blow-your-check-on-drugs” category.  Many people were very vocal about losing their basic human rights when being labelled Mentally Ill.

People talked about not being able to eat properly, needing a special diet, or no teeth.  One woman who needed dentures said her worker offered her a blender instead! The DTES is “home” to hundreds of homeless people; a young man said he was so cold he committed a crime to go to jail and get inside, 3 meals and a TV.  The $100/year clothing allowance no longer exists.  People aren’t able to buy new clothes, they wear cast-offs or shop at second-hand stores.  I’m a value village idiot myself, the only way I can afford “new” shoes.

Wendy asked about applying for welfare and the 3-week wait.  Not being given any money until 3 weeks after applying for welfare is very dangerous, somebody might get killed, one person said. A man looking for work said he had to go totally broke, liquidate RRSPs and any assets.  He said living on $610/month for a long period of time is very humbling. Another man said he couldn’t get on IA til he was literally homeless and lost all his clothes.  It makes a mockery of the word “assistance” in the term “Social Assistance”!  When Wendy asked if they were treated respectfully by the welfare workers, people laughed out loud. “People are treated like numbers, first they’re asked their date of birth, then their Social Insurance Number, and THEN their name!”

Jagrup moves to the DTES

We’ve already found him an SRO in the same building as Fraser, who is on the single employable welfare rate of $610.

It’s kitty-corner to Oppenheimer Park, so he’ll witness the daily food line-ups on Cordova and Dunlevy Streets, as well as in the park.  I point out the building to the Park staff; one of them says “I wouldn’t put anybody in those rooms, there are problems with the landlord.”

This room costs $425/month, when the rent portion of a welfare cheque is $375, so the extra $50 gets whittled away from the comfort portion, which is to pay for food, clothing, bus fare and anything else they need.

No elevator, so we take the stairs up to Jagrup’s 3rd floor room; one of the camera-men comments “quite the climb”.  The mattress and spring are leaning against the wall to give us space to get in the room. There’s a waist-high fridge, under the stove, on which only one of 2 burners works!

His fridge works, I tell Fraser, whose response is “None of the other ones work, why should his?” Fraser ended up buying a fridge with his own money, because the one the landlord provided didn’t work.  He tells me his Christmas-present-to-himself was a little toaster oven on sale for $39 at London Drugs, which he was lucky to find at Home Depot for $19.95.

Jagrup has only $21 left for the next 2 weeks, and one shopping bag of groceries from his room in Surrey to fill the tiny fridge.  His biggest hardship at this point is the loneliness of missing his family.  Every other person living in an SRO – and there are 5000 in the DTES – experiences this.  3500 of those rooms are privately owned, which usually means they are dismal, over-priced and in poor repair.  These aren’t the kind of places where you can entertain friends and family, which is why the Carnegie Community Centre is often referred to as “the living room of the community”.  All of these 5000 people experience the loneliness of a heart-breaking loss, without the light at the end of the tunnel that Jagrup has, because he gets to go home at the end of the month.

At Strathcona elementary school, Jagrup is introduced to a group of about 20 parents whose children live in poverty, as the MLA doing the Welfare Challenge.  “There’s no road map for this,” he says.

“Christy Clark needs to do it!” – a mom on Disability.

“Women and children, wasn’t that her platform? We’re waiting…” – her partner.

“Disability is the same rate it was 10 years ago, the price of food has gone up, though!”

“Poverty starves children!”

“My parents were on welfare. I had one meal a day when I was going to school.”

“The kids end up eating high starch and lots of processed food if you’re low income, that’s not healthy.”

“Welfare is designed to damage children.”

“We can’t afford the bus.  We walk a lot. Our children get $176 fine for riding the Skytrain without a ticket!”

“It’s a full-time job accessing all the resources to eat every day when I’m on welfare.”

“It’s survival, your brain is wrapped around how you’re going to get through the next day, the next month… it’s so stressful.”

“Most of the food at the Food Bank has passed its expiry date, some have bugs in it. When I complained I was told well, you’re lucky you got something. The children suffer most.”

“I couldn’t afford birthdays.”

“My son doesn’t get to experience hot dog days or after school sports ’cause they cost extra.”

The women also talked about the shame they felt when their kids were asked “what does your mom do?”, or wanted things that the other kids at school had.

Jagrup said it was unfair that BC is the only province which doesn’t allow people on welfare to work at a part time job, without deducting it from their next cheque dollar for dollar.  The women also told him about the punitive way welfare deducts child support payments from their cheques, so that it’s the children who are actually losing out.

Near the end of the visit, some women brought up the touchy topic of survival sex work, or to phrase it bluntly “Blow Jobs for Food”.  There was some laughter, and I promised not to use anyone’s names.

“It’s impossible for him [Jagrup] to face the degradation our women face every day.” -woman from Crabtree.

“I’ve heard grown men relate painful memories of their mothers propositioned by social workers, or humiliated by staff at the Food Bank when they were boys.”

Jagrup has discovered his fridge does not work, and knows if he keeps food on the window ledge, he will only be feeding the seagulls.  I suggest he call the landlord to have it repaired (quietly thinking “and see how long that will take!”) Fraser offers to share space in his fridge, and they go off to Sunrise Market to buy milk and tofu.

3 thoughts on “Diane’s Blog

  1. Plenty of verbal life in your blog, Diane. I look forward to reading your comments about Jag’s visit to the DTES NH today, January 25.

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