A centre that provides job advice and counselling for people in Canada’s poorest postal code is appealing for hundreds of thousands of dollars to stay open.
Pathways Information Centre, which provides employment and information assistance to residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has embarked on a campaign to raise the $400,000 it needs to keep its doors open for another year.
The B.C. Ministry of Social Development, which currently funds Pathways, is rolling out a restructured employment service program in April 2012 that will include providers such as Open Door Group Social Services Society. Pathways, however, didn’t make the cut, so it is losing its provincial funding in March 2012.
According to the centre’s program director, Carol Madsen, its staff and supporters are determined to make Pathways’ fate public in the hopes of attracting the money it needs.
“I want to get as many people talking about this as possible,” she said.
Ross Gentleman, executive director of Tradeworks Training Society, whose organization oversees Pathways, said at this point the staff feel like they have “nothing to lose.”
More than just employment
Madsen insists that Pathways, which was founded in 1993, is more than just an employment centre. “We use employment as (the) carrot that brings people in the building,” she said.
More than 250 DTES residents use Pathways’ services each day, which include phones, computers and a lounge area. The centre’s more than 14,000 members have access to employment counsellors and case managers who help them search for jobs, fill out welfare forms or refer them to agencies that deal with homelessness, drug addiction or mental health.
Pathways also runs www.dtes.ca, which contains information on an additional 170 social service agencies in and around the neighbourhood.“Any closure of Pathways will impact residents and homeless people alike,” said Al Mitchell, the manager of outreach services at Lookout, which offers support to the homeles.
“[T]here has been a growing trend of ‘process’ and ‘applications’ that are not always street-friendly, let alone ‘minimal barrier,’” Mitchell said. Residents of the DTES need someone who can “inform, guide or even assist” them with those processes, and “Pathways has been more than just helpful in that regard.”
Perry Joyce, a DTES resident, knows firsthand how helpful Pathways can be. Among other things, he’s put together résumés and cover letters with the help of the Pathways staff.
Such aid has made Joyce a passionate supporter of the centre, and has motivated him to sit outside the building on the corner of Main St. and Hastings, gathering signatures for a petition to keep the centre open.
Fellow DTES resident Damian Bonnell expressed his support in a letter addressed to Pathways itself: “The damage which would be inflicted on the community at large will not be easily fixed or the centre duplicated if shut down,” he wrote.
New government oversight, new program
The federal government oversaw six of B.C.’s employment programs until February 2009, at which point it transferred those duties to the province. The provincial government spent the subsequent two years, in consultation with the various employment groups, coming up with a new, more streamlined approach that combined the six programs with the four it already administered.
Allison Bond, the assistant deputy minister of employment and labour market services, said the new program will create accessible, flexible and ultimately more efficient employment service centres. The “one-stop shop” centres will be able to provide individuals with all of the services for which they qualify, said Bond, and will be able to reach out to “specialized populations” like those in the Downtown Eastside through partnerships with community-based services.
Gregg Taylor, president of the B.C. Career Development Association, which has acted as a liaison between the province and agencies, thinks that a streamlined approach that provides B.C. residents will all available employment services is a great thing. His concern is that many of the centres providing niche, specialized services like Pathways are going to be forced to close.
“We went from 300-400 contracts running a variety of programs with a wide range of agencies and service providers across the province, to a new model where the (same amount of) funding is funneled through  employment resource centres,” he said.
The new program will also partially operate on a “fee-for-service” basis. This means the employment centres will have to bill the Ministry of Social Development for each service provided to a client.
Bond said this will allow staff to provide better-tailored programs, while Taylor argues that it “makes the system less flexible per client and more restrictive on the nature of what you can refer them to.”
‘Wal-Marts of employment services’
[pullquote]Our big fear is that residents in this community are not going to have the services they need.[/pullquote]Back at Pathways, Madsen believes the provincial contracts will establish what she calls “Wal-Marts of employment services” that will completely exclude the poor and the marginalized.
She insists that it’s not just Pathways she’s concerned about, but the erosion of services in the DTES in general. “Our big fear is that residents in this community are not going to have the services they need.”
The Vancouver Eastside Educational Enrichment Society (VEEES), which partnered with Pathways to apply for one of the provincial contracts, appears to share Pathways’ fate. According to executive director, Hendrik Hoekema, “After 25 years, it will not be operating in the Downtown Eastside.”
Other agencies who partnered with Pathways were unwilling to comment on the new program, but BCCDA’s Taylor expects many more of them will also be shutting their doors. “It’s going to have a much bigger impact than [the government is] willing to admit.”