Last weekend I received a tweet from the City of Vancouver which caught my attention. It was a plea from them asking all of us to log on to the Pepsico website and vote in an online contest. The pepsi refresh project is a contest which encourages community groups to vie for one of two $25K grand prizes. The gimmick is a cheap and cheerful marketing promotion geared toward supporting a needy charity and promoting the consumption of Pepsico products.
Now enter the First United Church and their successful locker program aimed at supporting homeless people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The City of Vancouver recently told First United they had no more money to fund this successful pilot program, and its future looked grim. That is until the pepsi refresh project gave it some hope.
If you’re not familiar with the First United program, it provides hundreds of homeless people with a locker to safely tuck away their possessions overnight. By all accounts it has become an invaluable service to hundreds of homeless people who would otherwise have no other place to put their personal effects. Shopping carts filled with their belongings are often banned from local shelters. As a result, homeless people are forced to make the painful decision of sleeping outside with their possessions, or leaving them outside overnight. It’s a decision that some people no longer need to struggle with thanks to funding that was provided by the City.
The origins of the program can be traced to a $10M City program called Great Beginnings which in part was there to support Vancouver’s Project Civil City. Funding for this program was provided by Premier Gordon Campbell back in April 2008. Campbell wanted to support the City’s revitalization efforts in the Downtown Eastside through an innovative program intended to help clean up the streets and facades of rundown buildings. Great Beginnings also financially supported the start up of neighbourhood initiatives like the storage locker program.
While I fully support the efforts of First United (they’re in second spot in the contest at the moment) in getting people to vote for them, I can’t help but think of the irony of it all. Mayor Gregor Robertson says with a straight face there are no funds to continue supporting the program, yet he was able to find $260,000 for his office renovations. He also found millions of dollars to spend on costly communications plans, spin doctors and studies over the last couple of years. Did the Mayor really say he ran out of funds?
As for COPE, a party that for decades previous fought against the creeping “corporatization” of city hall, this must be all too much to bear. Should we assume councillors David Cadman and Ellen Woodworth both spoke up vociferously in opposition to this decision in one of their backroom joint Vision/COPE caucus meetings? After all, to have a homelessness program once supported by the City go cap in hand to Pepsico must be a bitter pill for COPE members to swallow. At least it used to be for a COPE that once stood for something other than simply retaining power at all costs.
I should note that a similar contest took place in New Westminster a few months ago when the Mayor and council endorsed a contest by Kraft Foods to help provide $25K in new funding for a Youth Centre. It provided Kraft with publicity worth well beyond their $25K investment. In fact, although Kraft’s contribution was a small percentage of the overall funds raised for the project, you’d never know it by the amount of media coverage they received. Needless to say, the marketing departments at both Pepsico and Kraft must be doing high fives watching this all unfold.
I suspect the Pepsico and Kraft marketing promotions are simply the tip of the iceberg. As civic governments get out of the business of supporting social programs in the name of fiscal restraint or competing priorities, the private sector appears only too eager to partially fill this void. In some ways they should be thanked for their generosity, but I’m still left wondering if relying on contests developed in their marketing department is the right model to fund programs which help our most vulnerable.
That said, you have until October 31st to cast your ballots (you can vote once per day) and take the Pepsi challenge. If enough of you vote for First United, $25K will go to a very worthy cause which will help to keep the lights on for at least another year. Fingers crossed they can make it to the top and that we eventually find enough housing for our homeless population to make the program redundant.
– post by Daniel