Great Beginnings can sometimes have uncertain endings

pepsi hope
Pepsi comes to the rescue after Vancouver cuts off funding to homelessness program

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

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  • Max

    I think the real slap in the face to this program was Kerry Jang stating it was not the responsibility of the city to fund this program but the responsibility of the province. (CKNW – about 2months ago)
    To think we can pour bike ‘trail’ lanes (in concrete) to the tune of $10M plus, yet they cannot come up with $95 K to help those whose backs they rode into city hall on – the homeless.
    On Friday I was wandering Commercial drive – I see the poster bills are up putting a call out to the activists for the February 2011 Olympic tent city.
    I also noted the posters stating no homes for the homeless, but homes for the ‘cops’ at the Olympic Village.
    February will be an interesting time at the Olympic Village and far from a great help for the marketing efforts to help dig us out of debt.

  • Other than the argument raised by Max re: whose jurisdiction housing is, and it’s not an easy argument, this raises an interesting issue for those of us who work with public service groups. How do we decide which services to provide with our tax dollars and which to let the community fund? This seems like an obvious one, but others are less so. Aviva Insurance has set up a fund for community groups/projects like this one. I got an email asking to support a legal service in Surrey by voting for their bid at Aviva. Some legal services are provided by the legal aid system, but those services have been cut over the past couple of years. The provincial government and Legal Services Society have a clear, legal mandate to provide legal aid to low-income British Columbians. Should I support this group’s bid? If I do, am I condoning the withdrawal of services?
    Aside: Do the same CC commenters who criticize the “civic socialism” of Vision stick to their ideological guns and decry any funding for housing as lefty socialist policy, or do they support the city providing social funding for housing and criticize Gregor and Vision for not providing the funding?

  • It’s small things like this that make such a huge difference to our street dwellers. Shame on the city for abandoning them…

  • PS I can’t vote. If First United wins, then some other worthy project loses. This sort of “contest” is morally equivalent to dogfighting.

  • rf

    The real irony is that the city is probably paying someone $75,000+/year to send Tweets about community funding contests.

  • @rf, I’ll one-up you in the irony department. Monday’s coverage on features two reports on charities. The one run by Joel Solomon and the other by First United Church.
    The church’s work is laudable and important. It helps desperate people. That $25,000 will make a difference for dozens who have nothing but a handful of possessions that fit into a Tupperware container.
    Contrast that with another charity (or charities, as Solomon is the head of multiple charities) such as the Tides Canada Foundation where its executives all live very well, earning six-figure salaries and dole out millions for public relations campaigns, websites and billboards. Solomon himself earned $186,000 (2008) as the president of the Endswell Foundation which gave 99% of its grants over the past decade to Tides, where he sits as Vice-Chair of their board.
    “Social change” is clearly lucrative business for some. Meanwhile First United is engaged in a circus act to keep the few worldly possessions of Vancouver’s homeless safe and dry. And of course, Mayor Robertson has a brand new office to boot.
    But it doesn’t matter because the ends justify the means, right?

  • Mary

    Mike, I think you’re on to something here. Why doesn’t Joel Solomon hand over the $25K himself?

  • boohoo

    Abusing the system isn’t exclusive to any single party here people… It’s fascinating watching people bemoan this activity as though it’s never happened with some other party. I look forward to the faux shock and outrage (yet again) when the next party (whoever that may be) does the exact same thing.
    Private sponsorship for things like this is a slippery slope. What happens when the sponsors decides to leave? They aren’t accountable to anything but the bottom line… I’m not very comfortable with it, but I don’t know the fine print so…

  • Jason

    @Mary I totally agree with you. Why doesn’t the mayor call his pal Solomon and get the Tides foundation to fund this kind of “social change”. Not that would be a real charitable act on their part.
    @rf You make me laugh. I have images of a $75K communications staff person tweeting out this message. yes, how ironic indeed.

  • Max

    Boohoo – the city has funded this program to-date.
    Here is a group (Vision) that proclaimed they would end homelessness by 2015. Then, the 2010 version came out of ending `street homelessness`.
    The same day that the church was profiled on the news as entering into this contest, the Mayor and Jang were handing our Thanksgiving meals to those same people that need this support.
    A great photo op and nothing else.
    And at that same photo op and when asked about this particular funding, Robertson decreed that Vision had spent hundreds of millions on social housing……that these types of programs need to be funded by P3 partnerships, private individuals, fund raising etc.
    I guess he forgot that Vision have also off loaded social housing to the province as well, and it is the province that has spent that money.
    So who is ending homelessness….the Province, not Vision.
    For crying out loud, they can`t even get the social housing aspect together at the Olympic Village – which, is going to hit them in the butt come February, or before, because the same Tent City at the Olympic Village in February 2011 activist have made hints that they would be running through the `Ghost`Village at Halloween.
    Any word on funding for the HEAT shelters – the weather is changing and they are predicting a bad winter this year……or has that be tasked to the Province as well.
    It seems Vision, now that they have got into power have abandon the homeless altogether.
    But hey, we have bike lanes that will be little used during the winter months.

  • boohoo

    If the City had been funding it, and now we’re relying on private funds, what happens when the private funds disappear? Buy more Pepsi?
    Anyway…yes, the platform of ending homelessness was ridiculous. So was anyone who actually believed it.
    *Gasp* politicians saying something and not following through. My goodness me. What a shock. Oh the outrage.
    But once we vote these no good lying elitist bike riding (I still love that you can be a hippy cyclist and elitist all in one) public consultation hating eco-socialists out of office it will all be good. I mean the next government will be different right? Right??

  • RIGHT.

  • Max

    boohoo, I worked as a scrutineer at Carnegie during the last election.
    I saw the number of people coming in to vote and primarily due to the homeless issue.
    The housing activists and activists in general were out and working full stop prior to the election date. There were tents set up outside of Carnegie on election day to register people with no fixed address so that they could vote. Carnegie and Pivot`s addresses were used on these forms.
    As for your last comment about things being different with a new government…well, I don`t remember hitting these issues with the previous government.
    We may not get rid of this Mayor next round, but there is no way they will have the sweep they way this did this last time.
    I see the people at Anchor Point are now speaking out against the bike lanes as well. I cringed when I saw the little elderly lady holding the sign `Bikes not Elderly` during the news brief.
    Vision Vancouver, making friends in all generations.

  • david hadaway

    Well, that’s a cynical outlook, which to my mind is self fulfilling.
    Even if everyone in civic politics were an amoral incompetent quasi-sociopath they would still be motivated by self interest, which means responsive to pressure from the third of the electorate that votes. So kicking up a fuss over their misdeeds would be worthwhile even if only to lessen the number of them. And actually experience suggests more can be achieved even if it is far from the ideal.
    Frustrating, yes. Futile, no.

  • Dave

    @ BooHoo & others
    seems that the whole issue and many like it is a question of reality vs spin and where you put your priorities.
    Could City Hall and the Mayors office done without the renos right now – You Bet!
    Could we have cut back on staffing for PR flacks, hacks and syncophants.. you bet!
    Could we have cut back on non essential construction programs – You bet!
    Could we have made contractors actually pay the development community amenity levies you bet!
    Ask yourself, how out of whack your prioritites are if you have to cut services, recreation and funding programs that acually help your citizens in favour of photo ops and pet projects in order to get re-elected.
    This isn’t governing.. this is self interest at its worst!
    and YES I know it’s the 1st job of any government to get re-elected. However, any government worth its salt would look at the big picture.

  • rf

    It’s also ironic that these are the same councilors that will nix having a Wal-mart in Vancouver but are more than happy to take money from a similar “evil multinational corporation” that they like to slag and ban from having some of their products in schools.
    Would they take the money from Wal-mart?
    Are the going to refuse Target a place in Vancouver as well? How do you let Target in but keep Wal-mart out?
    These guys are so oblivious to hypocrisy.

  • boohoo

    I suppose I am cynical but give me one reason not to be?
    As this blog points out (at nauseum), this current government isn’t doing what it said it would. Neither did the previous, or the previous, or the previous, or the prevous… So what possible reason is there to believe a future one will?
    This system of parties is broken. It’s exemplified by (whoever that was) in the locked thread that said something to the effect of ‘don’t bad mouth other npa members on a blog/in public’. This blind devotion to party politics is KILLING good governance. Decisions are not made in the best interest of the public or the issue at hand, they are made based on what the party thinks is best for the parties chance at re-election.
    That’s a broken system. So go ahead and be reactionary–throw the bums out…again. But why pretend the next bunch will be any different?
    So this comes across quite cynical, I guess I am. I’m also optimistic. I do think it can be better, I know it can be. But with this hyper-politicized atmosphere and the silly 2 party system I have serious reservations about its ability to do so. You can’t expect serious change if you keep voting in what amounts to the same thing over and over again. I’m ranting now, I’ll stop.

  • Bill McCreery

    “If the City had been funding it, and now we’re relying on private funds, what happens when the private funds disappear?”
    Boho you’re right. Once more, Vision have managed to turn civic governance into a crap shoot. [they’ve done the same thing with spot rezoning land lifts being sold off to the developer with no care as to the appropriateness of the end product in that community] Not only will the locker programme be back on the street when the $25,000 runs out, the entire process is a crap shoot lottery by votes. Suggest you look @ these sites if you haven’t. There’s +/-100 projects on the Avivia site, only 1 gets the plum pudding if I understand how it works. Aside from being a phenomenal waste of a lot of voters time, what happens to the other 99 very worthy pleas?
    This is not is not what I know as a civilized society, it’s living by the luck of the draw.

  • gregory

    So the City of Vancouver is so broke it will count on these web votes to fund projects from now on.
    Maybe they can make winning these commercial contests a line item on the city budget from now on.
    I wonder if that is the way the mayor would run his juice company.

  • gregory

    Have to be fair there is a Wal Mart in the City of Vancouver on the East Side near Grandview Highway and Rupert.

  • Pat

    Toronto doesn’t have a party system and they elected Rob Ford. Enough said. boohoo you are barking up the wrong tree.

  • Max

    From what I understand, the Mayor had `people` running Happy Planet. They are the same people – the financial backers, that were fairly angry with Robertson when he got caught for the fare evasion and then would not pay the ticket. (That info from a journalist friend)
    Is he still involved in the company, or, is he now just the `face` behind it. I read in one of the financial disclosures that he is also involved in one of the local free range chicken farms – I think….Maple Hills…

  • boohoo

    I don’t know anything about Rob Ford or Toronto politics (thankfully) but you take the good with the bad. No system is perfect, that’s for sure…
    Bill–I feel weird having you agree with me!

  • Pat

    “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Winston Churchill.
    You may think the current party system is awful, but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. The alternative to not having parties could be quite ugly as well.

  • boohoo

    Like I said, no system is perfect. But given the incessant complaining about how vision is a horrible party who only support their eco-socialist agenda at the expense of you and me, I’m surprised at the opposition to a different system.
    Hell even a thread about the NPA on a quasi NPA blog had to be locked because there was too much infighting… What about this silly party system works lol!

  • Bill McCreery

    Wonders never cease Boho. I suspect if you, I, & even others herein actually sat face to face in a forum where we were encouraged to arrive @ constructive conclusions we would do just nicely……. I live in hope, the eternal optimist.

  • Jason King

    I think whomever you are, you have to look at what Vision has accomplished over the last several years and ask yourself “were these the most pressing issues for Vancouver?” Bike lanes, a chicken bill of rights, a lottery system for food cart vendors…none of them seem to be “priority” items…yet these are the significant accomplishments of this mayor/council.
    Robertson has really done nothing on the homeless issue other than take credit for money that the previous administration had acquired, do the odd photo op, and complain that something “has to be done!”.
    I haven’t loved past mayors or council, but in comparison I really feel we’ve taken a major step back and now have a group of people who seem to be “pretending” to govern. They promote “feel good” projects, and do photo ops, and fly to China on “business trips” that really accomplish nothing. They seem to have even managed to make the Millennium project worse, a feat that took some real effort!
    The lack of action on the homeless is just one of the multitude of areas this mayor/council have done nothing about…Vancouver deserves better.

  • To roughly paraphrase from the National Post a couple days ago “Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by stupidity”.

  • Max

    Congratulations to the First United Church, I understand they are the lucky winners!
    Social media with a benefit
    Marcella Bernardo | Email news tips to Marcella
    Vancouver’s First United Church now has all the money it needs to keep a storage facility open for nearly 300 homeless people.
    Reverend Ric Matthews says they’ve won a 25-thousand dollar grant from Pepsi Cola by getting supporters to vote for them online, “The use of social media clearly has a very significant role to play in the raising of funds. This is a different ball game I guess, and I’m not sure what the ball game is, but its one that all of us will be looking at very carefully going forward.”
    Matthews says they need at least 100-thousand dollars a year to keep the facility open 24-hours a day seven days a week.