Downtown Eastside agencies must face a bidding process, but Jim Green's PRIDE Centre exempted
Several social-service agency representatives on Vancouver’s east side are crying foul after the Ministry of Skills, Training, and Labour cut funding for their pre-employment programs. But the bureaucrat responsible for the cuts, Bill Walters, told the Georgia Straight that he didn’t have an alternative after receiving bids for more than 200 proposals totalling $33 million.
Walters said his office had just over $5 million to distribute until the end of the current fiscal year, meaning there was only enough money to fund 44 to 46 programs.
Many of the cuts are in Premier Mike Harcourt’s own riding, including a pre-employment program for Vietnamese welfare recipients at the Strathcona Community Centre, a pre-apprenticeship automotive program for 18- to 24-year-olds, a pre-employment program for refugees at Storefront Orientation Services, pre-employment training and counselling for aboriginals and nonaboriginals at Vancouver Native Health, and Tradeworks Youth Training Program, which introduces young people to the construction trades.
“It’s as if the Ministry of Skills, Training and Labour’s mandate did not include—or doesn’t include—a lot of the high-risk populations and pre-employment programs that the Ministry of Social Services used to fund,” Jeff Brooks, acting manager of community services for the City of Vancouver, told the Straight.
He still hasn’t found out which “populations” are being funded, even though the ministry had said that information would be available on October 15.
In other areas of the city, funding cuts have hit West Broadway’s Picasso Café, which offers restaurant training for young people, and youth employment services offered by Family Services of Greater Vancouver.
“The whole thing is so fucking bizarre,” youth worker John Turvey told the Straight. “All of the sudden, we’re doing this one-size-fits-all on skills, training, and labour, bypassing all sorts of community processes—even the premier’s process on the Downtown Eastside.”
Walters said all who applied for funding were required to attend at least one meeting where they were told about the process. Later, they were given copies of minutes of the meetings. He added that unsuccessful applicants are welcome to come into the regional office and examine how they were evaluated, and some of the rejected agencies are being steered toward other ministries.
However, several community activists claim the process has been shrouded in secrecy and deception, saying they haven’t been able to find out who won the contracts.
Steve Boyce, executive director of Kiwassa Neighbourhood Services Association, told the Straight his agency worked extensively with the Ministry of Skills, Training, and Labour to redesign the association’s employment program. Yet the association’s $190,000 grant was cancelled, despite the program having a relatively low maximum cost of $2,075 per client.
“Everything from program content to delivery to staffing, liaison, monitoring, and reporting—everything was worked out,” recalled a very frustrated Boyce.
Walters wouldn’t discuss specific programs but said that just because people were dealing with officials or consultants with the ministry in the past, that didn’t automatically entitle them to funding under the recent tender. He said the request for competitive bids introduced a new level of accountability and at least two people were involved in each evaluation, which consisted of awarding a possible total of 110 points.
However, some of the losers claim the points system was unfair. Boyce said he only received four out of eight points in the “experience” category, even though he claimed to have provided employment training for 12 years.
Bob Gilson, president of Tradeworks Youth Training Program, said that when he went in to check his score, he noticed that officials had miscounted, robbing him of 18 to 20 points on a scoresheet of 110 points.
Walters said he felt embarrassed when this mistake—which he described as an error in transcribing figures—was uncovered, but even after correcting Tradeworks’ score, he said it still didn’t qualify for funding.
Walters said that since then, ministry officials have gone over every applicant’s score to ensure this mistake wasn’t repeated. “To say that one clerical error means the whole thing should be cancelled is stretching things,” he said.
Since 1992, responsibility for pre-employment programs has gradually been transferred from the Ministry of Social Services to the Ministry of Skills, Training and Labour. When these programs were put out to tender for the first time in July of this year, many on the Downtown Eastside felt the government was bypassing a community-consultation program initiated by Harcourt.
In March 1993, Harcourt provided $60,000 in seed money to a group of community-based organizations, the Downtown Eastside/Strathcona Coalition, suggesting in a letter to volunteer Pomponia Schmidt-Weinmar that the group could “develop a model that could for all of Canada point a direction for the rebuilding of inner cities”.
Coalition members had a mandate to work together to identify community needs, but that didn’t prevent the Ministry of Skills, Training, and Labour from cutting many of the member organizations’ funding.
“I believe the premier has good intentions and has tried to develop momentum in the community,” Schmidt-Weinmar told the Straight. “I think there has been poor implementation by the bureaucrats.”
Walters replied that a disproportionate amount of the regional funding was going to Vancouver agencies and that some agencies had several contracts. He said of the 18 agencies that lost funding, 10 already have existing contracts.
At the heart of the controversy on the Downtown Eastside, where unemployment is most pervasive, is the new PRIDE (People Responsible for Improving Downtown Economy) Centre at the corner of Hastings and Carrall streets. Schmidt-Weinmar said members of the coalition had agreed there was no need for any new agencies on the Downtown Eastside.
But last year, Employment and Investment Minister Glen Clark and Harcourt opened the PRIDE Centre to help inner-city residents obtain jobs at three new high-profile developments: General Motors Place, the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, and a new government-owned bank scheduled to open at the corner of Hastings and Main streets.
The PRIDE Centre is an arm of B.C. Community Financial Services Corp., a new Crown corporation chaired by veteran community activist Jim Green. Most galling to many coalition members is that unlike their agencies, the PRIDE Centre was not required to bid for employment-training contracts because it is considered a pilot project.
“We’re having a hell of a time finding out any information on the PRIDE Centre,” grumbled Deb Mearns, president of Vancouver Native Health.
PRIDE Centre director Mary Nolan told the Straight that her classroom-based program received almost $1 million in funding, including approximately $750,000 from the Ministry of Skills, Training, and Labour, but Walters said that money didn’t come from his regional office. Another $103,000, Nolan said, came from Human Resources Development Canada, which formerly employed both Nolan and her present assistant director, Francesca deBastiani.
Another $115,000 coming from the Vancouver Sunshine Coast Aboriginal Management Society, which administers $5 million in federal funding for employment programs targeted at aboriginal people.
DeBastiani’s husband is VSCAMS chief administrator John Webster. He told the Straight that before his wife was hired, he negotiated for a year with former PRIDE Centre director Laura Stannard to ensure aboriginal people would obtain jobs at GM Place.
Webster said he played a role in bringing the PRIDE Centre funding proposal to his board, but the board made the final decision after his wife was hired.
“I don’t have anything to do with the approval process,” Webster commented.
Green told the Straight that he didn’t see a problem with money going to the PRIDE Centre from an agency headed by the spouse of PRIDE’s assistant director. However, the PRIDE Centre’s near-million-dollar funding has caused considerable grumbling among some coalition members.
Alexandra Charlton, centre coordinator of Storefront Orientation Services, told the Straight that her entire pre-employment program—which has been cut—cost $38,500. She said that 38 of her 200 students found jobs, offering a much greater bang for the buck than the employment training at the PRIDE Centre.
“A lot of them are just on call—like they’re not full-time jobs,” Charlton said. “They’re just part-time and casual.”
Green agreed that many PRIDE Centre grads are employed part-time, but he said that is to be expected when people are entering the workforce after years of unemployment. He said the PRIDE Centre has helped 85 formerly unemployed area residents find jobs, and that’s before placements have been made at the Ford Centre and the new community bank.
“If [other groups] have a problem with their funding, they sure shouldn’t be trying to downgrade people in the neighbourhood who are trying to get jobs,” Green said. “That’s what I find to be kind of offensive.”