More sensitivity and less stunt when reaching out to the homeless

city_scope_logo-cmykThe promotion was called Sleepless In Our City, a well-intentioned fundraiser for the United Way of Elgin-St. Thomas. In capsule form, former MP Joe Preston and Tim Smart, the regional sales manager for a couple of local radio stations, were going to bundle up and spend the night sleeping – if possible – in the back seat of their respective cars. In the case of Tim, a Honda Civic.
(Full disclosure here, I spent several years as a volunteer on the United Way campaign cabinet and the entire team is to be applauded for raising in excess of $485,000 in this year’s campaign, as announced Friday evening.)
The media release from the United Way noted, “In Elgin St. Thomas, 20% of home owners and 42% of renters were spending more than 30% of their household income on shelter costs.”

It goes on to announce, “Joe and Tim are raising pledges and donations to help support vital programs for people at risk of homelessness.”
It’s at this point the focus of the promotion loses its way and it begins to taste and smell like a radio stunt.
We say that because the release also includes this quote from Lindsay Rice, co-chair, Elgin-St. Thomas Coalition to End Poverty and  Director of Community Programming, YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin, “You might not always see it, but homelessness does exist in St. Thomas and Elgin County.  It happens to  women, men, and youth of all backgrounds.  People in our community become homeless because of poor  physical or mental health, violence or abuse in the home, lack of employment or income, shortage of affordable housing and a lack of family support.”
01jt01jasonjpgcopySo, was this fundraiser – which admirably raised over $3,000 – geared to low-income individuals or the homeless? There is a world of difference in direction of need between low-income earners who own a home or are renting, and the homeless who definitely do not sleep in the back of their Honda Civic.
Need proof? Re-read the quote from Lindsay Rice.
As Tim noted, “If I have to tough it out in a Honda Civic one night, I’m  doing pretty good all things considered.”
Sorry Tim, this is not about your stamina level. You walked away the next morning, the homeless don’t have that luxury.
For this to be even remotely mirroring life and to avoid trivializing homelessness, the pair should have been sleeping bundled in some Talbot Street doorway or wandering the city in an effort to keep warm. Encapsulated in a metal womb in the parking lot of a business associated with your promotion partner does nothing to draw awareness to the plight of those “living rough.”
If either of you had experienced any sort of medical difficulty, you would have been attended to immediately. For the homeless, they are as likely to perish under a ragamuffin pile of clothing and paraphernalia, like the fallen sparrow buried in the snow.
But homeless advocate Jason McComb – who has trundled several thousand kilometres across a good portion of this country – can drive the point home in far more personal fashion.
“This is not the first time since I got to St. Thomas in 2012 to start my efforts for the homeless that the United Way has made an “effort” in this fashion and in turn been more than insulting with their actions and the way they carry it out,” he writes in a lengthy email. “I don’t know what it was that made me pick the copy of the weekly news up off the front porch and read it but when I did, I was furious yet again with the United Way and their Super Dave Osborne-type stunt!”

Homeless advocate Jason McComb

Before continuing, Jason offers this disclaimer.

“I know Mr. Preston’s heart is there!  I mean hell, he took that time out in December of 2013 when I walked to Ottawa to meet me at the eternal flame at Parliament, called and checked up on me as I was walking and even stood in the cold with me that night in Ottawa to talk and give me details of so many things. 
“As well he met with me in his office to talk about non-profit housing, educate me on Parliament and all the processes, he gave my mother a job many years ago when our family was having a tough time.  Those things and so much more speak volumes about that man and his honourable heart and I never want to discredit any of that.
“I am about to talk to the Caring Cupboard this coming week about doing something similar to what Mr. Preston and the other fella that had his Honda Civic Poverty Picnic bit,” Jason continues. “I am hoping to do a weekend of poverty and have others live it with me in a vacant store. 
“I, unlike the United Way, will not be asking for any money. If any money is raised, 100% of it will go to food for the food bank.  My goal will be to get as much food donated (useful food, not kidney beans and lentils) for the food bank as well as awareness of poverty and all those inclusive of it.”  
Jason signed off with praise for Melissa Schneider, former campaign and communications coordinator at the United Way.
“There is though, one wonderful woman working there (others too I am sure). Melissa is a phenomenal person, support, and huge heart.  She makes it a point to make sure I have coffee, ask if I have eaten, and expresses other concerns every time she sees me.”
I think what Jason is hinting at is this promotion should have leaned more toward sensitivity to those impacted by homelessness and less to stunt.
At the end of an admittedly cold and uncomfortable night, Joe and his cohort were able to retreat to a warm breakfast in the comfort of their home, secure in the knowledge gainful employment was not a worry.
For a homeless individual, his or her life doesn’t get any brighter with the first light of dawn.
Still with Jason, the downtown core is a much tidier place to walk since Jason took over cleanup duties. But he is seeking cooperation in one area. 
We’ll let him paint the rather messy picture.
“I would love for dog owners to see that it is not easy and also not mine or any one else’s responsibility to clean up after their dogs or pick up the bags they used to clean up after them and toss them into the curb lane. The curb lane is not part of my job but when on shift, as well as all other times, I do it anyway.” 
And if you think Talbot Street can’t possibly look any cleaner, well you ain’t seen nothing yet.
“I will be getting new shoes one of these days and a proper coat,” writes Jason in an email, “and once that takes place I will make it a point to be even better at what I do in the litter area. Hopefully city hall is ready to stop picking up the bags of garbage I collect and place at the curb in front of their stairs and bring back garbage cans!”
There you go again, Jason, ruffling feathers at the big house on Talbot Street.
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Assuming there are no lingering health concerns – with lawyer Valerie M’Garry and not the Sutherland Press building – the City vs. Sutherland Lofts saga picks up again Monday at the Elgin County Courthouse.
A scheduled hearing between with the city and David McGee, owner of the four-storey structure, was stood down early last month when M’Garry was unable to attend due to illness.

Sutherland Press building in 2008, prior to partial demolition of front face

To recap the latest segment in this long-running soap opera, McGee is challenging an unsafe building order issued Oct. 28 by the city giving him until Dec. 15 of last year to provide a detailed work plan and schedule repairs to begin in early January, 2017.

Speaking to this corner after the postponement, city manager Wendell Graves stressed, “He (McGee) has to produce a plan to make the building safe and he hasn’t . . . It’s a continuing concern for us.”
It is M’Garry’s contention the lack of specificity with regard to repairs mandated by the city, combined with the unreasonable time frame to complete those repairs resulted in a situation that is “just not realistic.”
What is real is the ongoing deterioration of the structure dating back to 1913 and the mounting legal tab.
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We referenced this last week in this corner, a report presented to council Monday by director of finance David Aristone closing the books on the 14-year Timken Centre  fundraising campaign with its target of $3 million. He advised of the $2.6 million originally pledged, $324,000 has now been cancelled, leaving a pledge total of $2,264,162.
Not a single question from any member on council regarding the almost $800,000 shortfall and are taxpayers on the hook for the difference? Not a single question on any expenses related to the campaign chaired by professional fundraiser Hilary Vaughan
In a 2007 report to council, it was noted $135,000 in expenses had been submitted. Is there an accounting on this figure?
We took the opportunity to check in with Aristone this week seeking clarification.
“There haven’t been any expenses submitted to me since I’ve been here,” advised Aristone. “I’ve just been following up on outstanding pledges.”
Aristone could shed little light on the expenses accrued up to 2007.
“I’m just going with numbers Bill (former city treasurer Bill Day) inherited from the committee. I don’t know what else to look for. That’s not factored into my report. If the city paid the committee costs, that’s long before me. I don’t have any information on that.”
Well then, let’s move on as to how the fundraising shortfall has been credited.
“We’re still financing that (development charge portion) yearly and so we’re applying that to our internal loan. But the total project costs and fundraising, I assume, would have been done in a report prior to me getting here. There should have been no change since that last report (in 2007). The project costs would have been established and we just needed to finance the development charges we hadn’t got yet.” 
Does it remind you of income tax time and all your expenses and receipts are stuffed in a shoe box?
A couple weeks back, reader Michelle questioned the lack of local tourism info available inside Timken Centre.
“Inside the main entrance, to your immediate right, is a display stand. It contains many wonderful and colourful brochures and pamphlets enticing people to … anywhere but St Thomas,” she wrote.
A quick spot check this past week revealed several dozen glossy examples of tourist material covering a wide spectrum of destinations across southern Ontario and two lonely Elgin county booklets. Now, to be fair, the Elgin material is quite comprehensive but would it not make sense to have the display stocked with promotional material from the myriad museums, parks, and heritage sites that dot the entire county?

Port Stanley harbour

The Elgin County Railway Museum is a stone’s throw away and the Elgin Military Museum, Elgin County Archives, the Gay Lea Dairy Heritage Museum, Pinecroft, Sparta and the beach in Port Stanley, to name but a few, are a short drive distant. 

We’ve already attracted visitors to the Timken Centre for games and tournaments, now why not strike while the iron is hot.
Isn’t that the key to retail? Get them in the store and then win them over with the sales pitch.
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