Financial squeeze threatens centre for mothers
The Globe and Mail – Aboriginal Affairs
By Hadani Ditmars
Publish Date: December 21, 2007
Home for native women will be forced to close on Jan. 1 if emergency funding cannot be found.
Juanita Santos is in danger of losing her “lifeline.”
The 30-year-old single mother lives a few blocks from the Aboriginal Mother Centre on Dundas Street, where she has come with her 2Â½-year-old son Langdon almost every day of his life.
“It’s the only safe place in the neighbourhood where my son can play without me having to worry about needles on the ground and junkies shooting up.”
In the past few years, she says, the drug epicentre of Main and Hastings has moved steadily eastward, even as the area has gentrified with high-end lofts staring down at centre patrons as they eat their lunch.
Besides the free-meal program, the centre offers her the camaraderie of other mothers, playmates for her son, babysitting, vocational training, counselling, the wisdom of elders and, above all, a real sense of community in Canada’s poorest postal code.
Funding for the centre, which has been operational since 2001, was denied this past October by the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness, a community advisory board for a government funding program. The centre has a yearly budget of about $480,000. Since its inception, it has received a mix of municipal, provincial and federal money, with the primary funding coming from the federal Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, administered through the steering committee.
In a letter to the centre’s executive director, Penny Irons, dated Oct. 17, committee chairperson Alice Sundberg rejected the centre’s request for funding, citing among other reasons, “an extremely competitive [funding application] process” and that “outcome for clients was not clear.”
If the decision is not reversed immediately, or if $120,000 for three more months of operation is not found, the centre will be forced to close Jan. 1, and the “outcome” for its clients will become even murkier.
“Where will everyone go?” Ms. Irons asks at her on-site office, with its view of the industrial waterfront skyline, a new condo development and a Mohawk gas station. Ms. Irons, a Haida mother of three who worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs under Lloyd Axworthy and returned to the West Coast eight years ago to start the centre, says she was “shocked” at the denial of funding.
So were many other native organizations who say the community-consultation process was flawed and did not include sufficient aboriginal input. Ken Clement, president of Lu’ma Native Housing Society, was so concerned that he wrote to Service Canada and offered his capital-project funding as a means of keeping the mother centre afloat.
But to date, there has been no official response. Andrea Gillman, a housing policy analyst at the Homelessness Secretariat, which is contracted to provide administrative services to the steering committee, says that the issue is under review but no new assessment will be made until some time in January.
As Ms. Irons lists off various centre attributes – 109 families saved from homelessness this year, a safe drop-in space for local prostitutes, a drug-free environment for women and their children, a contract for women to produce blankets and handicrafts for the 2010 Olympics at the on-site workshop – clients and staff wander in an out of her office, seeking advice or asking her to resolve the minor crises of centre life.
Ms. Irons fields calls from friendly developers like Milton Wong, who is part of a Builders Without Borders initiative to create 10 low-income residential units as part of the centre, and cuddles babies with equal aplomb. Ms. Irons is the centre’s uber-mother.
“If this centre closes,” she says, “there will be an increase in poverty, homelessness and the breakup of families.”
Ms. Irons explains the vicious cycle the centre is trying to break: “If there’s no more food program here, it won’t be long before social workers apprehend children saying, ‘you’re not feeding your kids properly.’ Once that happens, moms will lose their housing, they’ll end up on the street. They’ll lose hope, feel desperate and fall into drugs and prostitution.”
By focusing on the well-being of mothers and children, Ms. Irons says, the centre is trying to “break the cycle from the beginning.”
She points to research suggesting that children at risk do much better in loving, community environments where they can play and interact with others than in isolated single-parent homes. “The centre is unique in what it offers,” she says.
“If this centre closes,” says 63-year-old Patricia Joe, one of the centre’s “elders” who shares her knowledge of life and native tradition with many young mothers, “there will be a big hole in the community.” Ms. Joe says she would have difficulty making ends meet without the food program and that staff will call her at home if she is ill and hasn’t come by the centre for a few days, to see how she is doing.
“We’re like one big family here,” she says.
Both staff and clients are especially concerned about the centre closing in the middle of winter and Ms. Irons has made a special 11th-hour appeal to Premier Gordon Campbell.
Michael Morton, the Premier’s press secretary, confirms his office has received a letter, “and we will be reviewing it.”
Meanwhile small-scale fundraising efforts – such as pancake breakfasts and dinners – continue. One former client of the centre who was able to get off the streets and into a well-paid job, dropped by last week and gave $100 to the cause.
Senator Larry Campbell has become an advocate of the centre and hopes to meet with Monte Solberg, the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, before Christmas to try to have funding restored immediately.
“My big concern is that if the centre shuts down it won’t get going again. And this would be a big blow to the community. This is not some pie-in-the-sky outfit. The services they deliver for half-a-million bucks a year are amazing,” Mr. Campbell said.
Closing the centre would not be cost effective, Mr. Campbell says, because additional social services would be needed to replace the many services the centre provides “under one roof.”
And as a former city coroner, he says, if the centre closes, “I worry that people could die as a result.”
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