Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MLAs' meal allowance just the tip of the iceberg

Ida Chong is the one we’ve all been talking about, but this meal-allowance business is much bigger than the $6,000 per-diem Chong claimed in the last fiscal year.
I can feel it in the public reaction. Like me, people see the Chong story as symbolizing much more than just one politician’s per-diem spending.
There’s real outrage and betrayal in the letters to the editor and on the radio call-in shows. Genuine hurt. It’s a shame that MLAs have reacted by circling the wagons and closing ranks, because this is an important moment to try to understand.
I’ve been surprised at my own wounded reaction, especially after learning this week that MLAs don’t even have to submit receipts for the $61 per diem they’re eligible for when doing official government work in Victoria or Vancouver. (“It costs more to administer the receipting process than to just set a flat rate,” said a communications spokesman with the Finance Ministry.)
Call me naive, but I had no idea.
Sure, I’m all for reimbursing our hard-working MLAs for legitimate expenses they incur. I know they’re putting in long hours and sacrificing family time, and all those other things that hard-working people everywhere can relate to.
But just handing them a wad of cash so they can eat, park and sleep at the taxpayers’ expense raises questions for me, and not just in an eye-rolling, cynical-about-politics kind of way. Before government started cutting vital public services last year, did anybody even consider steps to reduce these kinds of expenditures?
I browsed the government Web site for more information on the Capital City allowance that landed Chong in the news, and quickly found myself in a labyrinth of per-diems and meeting payments I hadn’t known existed.
The same arrangement that MLAs have is available to certain classes of civil servants. They get $47 a day, and $61 if their work on a particular day involves hanging out with an MLA or senior bureaucrats getting the higher rate.
Whether anyone actually spends the money on food is entirely up to them. It’s really just a non-taxable bonus on top of a (generous) salary.
The thousands of non-government people who sit on the province’s many advisory boards, tribunals and review panels can also claim meal per-diems. But I doubt many of them bother, seeing as the real money is in attending meetings, most of which pay from $350 to $750 per meeting.
I can’t tell you what all the costs would add up to, because nothing is gathered in one place. I sense from the government’s own slow response to my query for more information on this subject that they’d be hard-pressed to tell you, either.
But clearly it’s a potful.
Consider this one small example:  We paid almost $800,000 in the last fiscal year for 268 British Columbians to attend meetings of B.C.’s 75 Property Assessment Review panels.  Some panel appointees made as much as $10,000 from the meetings, held Feb. 1 to March 15 every year for unhappy homeowners wanting to appeal their provincial assessments.
And that’s just one small for-instance. Land yourself on any of the big government-appointed boards in B.C. and you’ll get $750 every time you go to a meeting.
That’s the price of doing business, some would argue. But during a recession like this one, no stone should go unturned when government is looking for savings.
Were these expenses scrutinized and considered for reduction? Were MLAs approached to reduce their own claims on public money?
One less meeting of Property Assessment Review panels would save a bundle - maybe even enough to spare a high-school-upgrade program for young moms. MLAs who were conscious of their spending and claimed only for what they spent could have made a real impact on community services that have now been lost.
Government has felt the pain of the recession, of course. Travel spending was cut in half in the past year, to $39 million, and office expenses were cut by a third. It’s been hard times for civil servants working in ministries singled out for layoffs, and for staff and clients of increasingly starved public services.
But the per-diem claims suggest that at the political level, it was business as usual. The MLAs took what the rules allowed them to take. The paid meetings continued unabated. A typical front-line community worker would have to work more than five days to earn what some people get paid just for a half-day meeting.
It’s a grave betrayal of the public trust, and profoundly unsettling for what it reveals about how our government views us. Serfs, let ‘em hear you roar.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Government knows how to end homelessness - and it's not arrest

These are times when all ideas need to be on the table, so I’m trying to restrain my impulse to go berserko at the B.C. government for thinking that you can manage homelessness by arresting people.
But really, it’s enough to break your heart. All the effort and thought that has gone into this issue in recent years, all the proven solutions and strategies pulled together by brilliant and informed minds right here in B.C. - and this is what the province has taken away from that? Say it isn’t so.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman has been in the news this week talking about giving police the power to arrest people who refuse to go to shelters over the winter. His early plans turned shelter staff into jailors by forcing people to stay inside, but now he says police would just deliver people to shelters and leave it up to them whether they walked through the door.
The argument will likely play well with many of us in the comfortable class, who shudder at the thought of being out on a cold, wet winter night. Who can blame us for presuming that anyone who’d choose to sleep outside at night must be certifiably insane?
But the truth is that there are all kinds of sane reasons for choosing the streets over a shelter bed.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as not being able to bear the thought of lying on a mat in a big room with 70 or 80 other troubled souls trying to make it through the night in noisy, restless fashion. Or about having no place to leave your cart without all your worldly belongings being stolen by the morning, or another night of waiting in line outside the shelter just to find out there are no beds left, by which time all the good outdoor sleeping spots are long gone.
It’s about having a spouse and wanting to sleep like a couple, or having a pet that you can’t possibly leave outside alone in the cold. When our region’s “cold wet weather” protocol kicks in - and believe me, it’s damn cold and wet before that happens - only one adult emergency shelter, the one at St. John the Divine, welcomes couples and pets.
Then there’s a whole other group of resisters with severe addictions, whose sleep/wake cycles are so completely out of whack that the idea of lying down quietly at night for eight hours isn’t even an option.
Some have mental-health issues that keep them out of shelters, although not many in my experience, and certainly not enough to give Coleman the quick street cleanup he’s envisaging. There’s also a tiny group who would actually choose to live outside no matter what: modern-day hermits, maybe 32 people in all in our region based on the findings of the expert panel that worked on the 2007 Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness.
Challenging issues, yes. But not insurmountable, as Coleman well knows. The City of Vancouver has had amazing success with such populations using a new kind of shelter piloted late last year. None of it has required arresting people.
The goal of the project was to lure resisters inside by providing shelter with a difference - locked spaces for carts, couples and pets allowed, 24-hour TV room to accommodate the sleepless, the dignity of booking another night before you left the shelter rather than having to line up much later in the day and hope for the best.
The empty buildings used for the shelters were pulled together quickly and on the cheap, with an operating cost of roughly $1.5 million for the three-month pilot. All were located in areas where people were already sleeping.
The plan worked like a charm. More than 500 people who’d previously refused to use shelters came inside within a few days of the shelters opening last December.
A similar solution for the 100 to 150 people in our region who avoid shelters would cost just $750,000 to cover five months of cold, wet weather. Much could be accomplished merely by extending Our Place drop-in hours over the winter and expanding the Cool Aid winter shelter that’s run out of St. John the Divine church.
The vast majority of people on our streets desperately want shelter and housing. But that’s not to say they’re prepared to give up everything of themselves just for one night out of the cold. Arresting people “for their own good” is something that a civil society does with the utmost of care, and only after all other options are exhausted - something that’s most definitely not the case in B.C.
You know what works, Mr. Coleman. Please don’t waste any more time and tax dollars on a plan that fails on every level.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Autism cuts add one more burden to families

Cuts to government-funded programs are raining down in all directions. Alicia Ulysses gets that the end of free karate lessons for her 16-year-old autistic son is pretty small potatoes given all that.
But sometimes a mother just has to stand up and say: Hey, you guys, have you ever considered what you’re really taking away from the child at the other end of a decision like that?
In B.C., families can qualify for up to $20,000 a year in government funding to help pay for special services for a child with autism who is under age six. That amount will be increased to $22,000 next April. Nicholas Ulysses is 16, so the maximum his family qualifies for is $6,000 a year.
It’s a needed program, and here’s hoping nothing bad happens next year when the government makes changes to the way parents access the money. But the problem for families of older children is that the kinds of activities that would benefit their child often don’t qualify for funding - or not for long, at any rate. So it is for Nicholas, whose government-funded karate lessons came to an end this summer.
The kinds of autism services government prefers to support are therapies that target very young children, who benefit immensely from early intervention. Once a child moves into the “six to 18-year-old” category, however, they’re as developed as they’re going to get in terms of their autism. They qualify for considerably less support, and far fewer services that fit their changing needs.
Up until the latest rejection letter, Nicholas’s mom has been able to make a case to government that karate lessons qualified as an “other intervention recommended by a professional.” Even so, the decision has been revisited almost every year since the family was approved for $4,000 a year in funding in 2005. Each time, Alicia has to get yet another letter of support from a registered psychologist attesting that karate is beneficial for Nicholas.
It’s true that the teen enjoys both the sport and recreation of karate, and that neither of those activities qualifies for autism funding. He definitely needs the exercise, which Alicia is pretty sure the government would agree with if they’d ever actually met him.
But Nicholas’s karate is about much more than that, says his mom. When he’s at his karate lessons, he feels like he belongs. He’s got friends. He’s got purpose. Those are things that a lonely boy with autism doesn’t get to feel very often.
“At school, people treat Nicholas very nicely, because they know that’s what you’re supposed to do,” says Alicia. “But they never call once to invite him to a movie, or to a birthday party. These kids want to feel normal - they want to be involved in normal things. Not everything in their life has to be a therapy.”
Therapy is no longer the issue for a child the age of Nicholas, she adds.
“Now, it’s about coping. I took Nicholas for a job interview today and it went really well. But that’s because I did his resume. I got him in the right clothes and shoes. I made sure he brushed his teeth. He doesn’t need intervention anymore - he needs help with everyday things.
“OK, the research says that people with autism need this or that kind of service, and that’s what we’re supposed to want. But meanwhile Nicholas is a lonely boy, nobody’s calling, and he wants a girlfriend. Slowly, slowly, these kids learn to give up, because they feel the rejection.”
Laurel Duruisseau, of the Victoria Society for Children with Autism, says karate and gymnastics are two of the biggest bones of contention between her society’s 150 members and government. She says occupational therapists recommend such activities all the time, but government resists funding them.
“The funding is really intended for one-to-one intervention, which is fine for a four-year-old but not such a good fit for a 16-year-old,” says Duruisseau. “We’ve pretty much all been through it with our kids. Any activity that you can put a typical child in, chances are the funding won’t cover it.”
Her group created a new charity - Mosaic - just to try to get around the problem. It runs drama and art programs for autistic teens. “Karate is actually on the list for us to look at adding,” says Duruisseau.
A high-profile B.C. court case over funding for services kept autism in the headlines for a long time, until the case was lost at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004. Alicia says there’s still “a lot of noise” about autism in the province, but little change. This week, the government scrapped a $5 million fund that paid for a particular kind of autism therapy for 70 B.C. families.
“When we speak up, I don’t think they want to hear it,” she says. “My case is a minor one, but there are others that aren’t. And it’s not fair. Every little thing adds another burden to a family that’s already stretched.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I'm co-ordinating Homelessness Action Week events this October on behalf of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, including our second annual Project Connect. Here's the press release that will be going out tomorrow - if you're interested in contributing to the week, please see the list of needs below. And if you can volunteer your time for Project Connect on Oct. 14, please let me know. Hope to see you there!

Sept. 14, 2009

Service day for street community helps prep for winter cold

A service fair next month for people living homeless and in poverty returns for another year with even more on offer for hundreds in the capital region preparing for a cold, wet winter on the streets.
Almost 600 people attended Project Connect last year, an all-day event sponsored by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and its partners across the region. Organizers are preparing for even higher numbers for this year’s, to be held Oct. 14 at Our Place. The popular event, part of Homelessness Action Week (Oct. 11-17), provides one-stop access to a wide variety of services and food for people living in deep poverty and homelessness in our region.
“We bring key community services into the same room for a day and make it as easy as possible for people coming to the event to find the support they need,” says Jody Paterson, who’s co-ordinating Homelessness Action Week activities this year on behalf of the Coalition.
“So we’ll have the street nurses there, and people doing footcare, and help for people needing to get on income assistance, replace missing ID, or connect with the major outreach teams working in the downtown. But we’ll also have haircuts, veterinarian care, acupuncture, resume-writing and a whole lot of food, which means the day is also about helping people have a good time for a few hours.”
Donations of all kinds are most welcome. The Coalition is organizing a backpack drive in local secondary schools, and hopes that every Project Connect participant leaves the event with a backpack filled with donations from the community: socks, gloves, toques, scarves, grooming products, feminine hygiene, toothbrushes and toothpaste, reading glasses.
Please drop off Project Connect donations at Our Place, 919 Pandora Ave., any morning Sept. 21-24, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Ask to be directed to the Project Connect volunteers.
The Coalition is also looking for haircutters willing to volunteer a few hours that day, having seen last year that haircuts were one of the most sought-after services. Volunteers in general will be needed to help out at Project Connect and in the coming weeks; contact Deb Nilsen at dnilsen@shaw.ca to get involved. The Capital City Lions Club will return for a second year for a day-long burgers-and-dogs barbecue.
The Coalition is a non-profit community-based partnership of agencies that work together to end homelessness in Greater Victoria. More than 400 people were housed and supported last year through the collective efforts of coalition member agencies, and almost 400 more units of housing and shelter are now underway.
Visit the Coalition's Web sitefor more on the coalition. For information on Project Connect and Homelessness Action Week events, contact Jody Paterson at jodypaterson@shaw.ca.

Homelessness Action Week events
Oct. 11-17, 2009

Here are a few of the events being organized by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and other service providers in the region. Keep an eye on the Coalition’s Web site at www.solvehomelessness.ca for more information on events as the date draws closer.

• An art show featuring the art and music of people who have experienced homelessness, including selected works from the Street Voice Project. Friday, Oct. 16, 7-10 p.m. at the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
• A forum for leadership students throughout the region led by a panel of people who have experienced homelessness. Tuesday, Oct. 13, venue and time TBA.
• Tours of service agencies and other organizations working in the area of homelessness, including the new Access Health Centre and Woodwynn Farm
• Landlord Appreciation Day, sponsored by Pacifica Housing
• Public premiere of the documentary 40 Years of Cool Aid Culture

About the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness:
Formed in 2008, our diverse non-profit coalition is made up of representatives of all key organizations whose work relates to homelessness, including service providers, government ministries, police, funders, the health authority and elected officials. We work to find housing and support for people living homeless using a “housing first” approach, and also to stop the flow of new people onto our streets by addressing the root causes of homelessness.
The cost of people living homeless is estimated at $50,000 annually per person - a total of $75 million a year in our region alone based on an estimated homeless population of 1,500. Housing people and providing the supports they need not only improves their quality of life and community connection, but reduces the enormous social, health, justice and sanitation costs of homelessness.

A few highlights from the past year:
• More than 400 people housed and supported through the collective efforts of coalition member agencies - significantly exceeding the target of 250
• 130 additional rent supplements for our region from BC Housing
• 15 new adult detox/residential treatment beds brought on by the Vancouver Island Health Authority, for a total of 21 in the region
• The forging of a new partnership merging the Coalition and the Victoria Steering Committee on Homelessness, bringing $1.2 million in federal contributions to the Coalition over the next two years.
• Some 367 units of supportive and transitional housing in the works or newly available, including a shelter under construction on Ellice Street and supported housing units on Humboldt and Swift streets

Friday, September 04, 2009

Muddy waters hide true level of cuts in BC budget

The devil’s in the details, as the saying goes. But good luck trying to find them in the revamped provincial budget if you’re looking to understand where the cuts to provincially funded services are going to hurt the most.
What is clear is that somebody’s definitely going to be feeling pain. The revised 2009-10 budget reflects a major downturn in provincial revenue. Government has earmarked almost $2 billion in cuts over the next three years that will come from “administrative efficiencies” inside government, and an additional $1.5 billion in cuts to various community services receiving year-to-year grants.
The government calls such grants “discretionary.” What they mean by that is that government is under no obligation to provide the money in the first place, or to keep it coming. Discretionary grants have become a very common but extremely unstable way of funding many kinds of community services.
The $159 million or so the government hands out every year in gaming grants are considered discretionary, for instance. But that’s only the government’s opinion. Ask any of the thousands of community groups that desperately count on that money to fund important services and they’ll tell you that those gaming grants are essential.
A senior Finance Ministry bureaucrat told me at this week’s budget release that it only makes sense to cut discretionary spending first. “Isn’t that what you’d do in your own household?” he asked me.
Sure, but in that case it would be up to me to decide what expenses could be classified as discretionary. Who is it that defines “discretionary” at the provincial level for purposes of funding cuts? Whose grants are on the hit list? I spent six hours poring over pages and pages of budget documents Tuesday and am still no closer to the answer.
Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer asked the question of the day on this point when he queried Finance Minister Colin Hansen at the budget lockup as to why there wasn’t a list of all the grants being cut. I wonder whether anyone in government even has such a list, or has any idea of what the cumulative effect will be from cutting so many community grants all at once.
Hansen invited Palmer and any other interested media to scrutinize three account classifications in the “Supplement to the Estimates” to find that out. Such classifications are known as Standard Objects of Expense - STOBS - and the ones in question are numbers 77, 79 and 80. All three provide funding for community partners, whether in the form of discretionary grants, required payments, or contractual agreements.
So I put on my reading glasses and scrutinized, aided by a kind Finance Ministry staffer who dug up the original supplement from the February budget needed to compare any differences between the two.
But as it turns out, the task is impossible even with both documents in hand. That’s because while government ministries were cutting discretionary grants, they were muddying the waters by also recategorizing a whole bunch of other STOBs that fit into those same three classifications.
For example, what looks like the wholesale slaughter of discretionary grants within the Attorney General’s ministry turns out to be just a shifting of legal-aid services into a different. Discretionary grants in the Health Ministry look like they’ll shrink from $50 million to a mere $4.3 million, but ministry bureaucrats say that, too, is just the result of funding being moved around.
In the Public Service and Solicitor General’s ministry, there’s $1 million less for discretionary grants related to policing, community services and victim services. In the Ministry of Children and Family Development, there’s $2 million less for child and family development.
Can we presume those are cuts to community groups? I don’t have a clue. Nothing I could find in the documents added up to anything like the $385 million in cuts to discretionary funding that have apparently already been made this year, so who knows what it all means?
It will be weeks or even months before anyone on the ground has any real sense of what’s being lost. At the same time, communities will be feeling the effects of local health authorities cutting $25 million a year from their budgets by reducing admin costs and their own “discretionary” spending.
The provincial cuts have all been made for this year, the Finance Ministry assures me. But that’s not to say that those on the receiving end have been informed yet, or are in any way prepared for even heavier cuts this spring. Listen for the wails in a community near you.