Defending the Portland Hotel Society

If you aren’t from Vancouver, you’ve probably never heard of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) a non-profit started in ’93 to provide services and advocacy for the marginalized people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The society operates many hotels which rent mostly single-room-occupancy (SRO’s) in that area, and specializes in harder to house populations. In conjunction with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), they opened insite, Canada’s first supervised safe-injection site for harder drugs.

Right now, PHS is under attack following two audits which raised some questions about the use of certain administrative fees. The audits recommended that “VCH and the PHS jointly develop requirements for record keeping and service evaluation plans”. However, instead what has happened is the two founding directors of the PHS have been sacked, and many of the programs PHS runs which were funded through administrative fees are in danger of being cut.

These programs include: paying veterinarian bills to keep their beloved pets alive when they can’t afford to; to continue providing residents with transportation, suitcases and pocket money for family reunification, or for presenting their work in harm reduction at the conferences to which they’re invited; to continue hosting dignified memorials and celebrations of life when residents pass away, with coffee, sandwiches and flowers for the bereaved; to continue the lunch program that feeds ~200 residents of the Sunrise, Washington and Stanley Hotels; to continue serving hot Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings at every project each year, and eggs and bacon breakfasts on Christmas mornings at the New Fountain Shelter.

In short, what is happening is the war on the poor is being waged in the name of the poor, in the name of transparency and efficiency, and in the name of holding non-profits to scrutiny. But don’t take it from me, the main purpose of this blog post was to provide a space where I could host a set of links by real journalists and writers who have something to add to the discussion.

“We should decry the cynical timing of the audits’ release — hot on the heels of the disgraceful DTES local area plan, which announces the imminent dispersal of hundreds of people who call the Downtown Eastside their home. We should reject the mainstream’s framing of this audit and note that it asks questions but says exactly nothing on corruption, longterm financial solvency of the PHS, or its ability to deliver public money to those who need it most.” The Portland Hotel Society should be defended. (Rabble)

“Patrick May works the front desk for the PHS at the Pennsylvania Hotel, site of the original Portland Hotel. “I feel a bit confused, kind of scared for the future, not only for myself but for the culture of the organization. We work in unorthodox ways and that is why we have been effective. It think it will be difficult for us if we have to be more bureaucratic.” Passionate former clients defend Downtown Eastside non-profit as audit reveals loose spending. (the Tyee)

“PHS staff work under extremely challenging and highly stressful conditions without pension plans, employee assistance programs or disability benefits. They are seldom, if ever, paid overtime, and they are rarely paid to attend staff meetings. The incredible commitment on the part of PHS staff is reinforced by kindness. They are a small army of dedicated people who are committed to doing hard work that is producing real change in peoples’ lives on a daily basis; work in which it is not uncommon to find a person who has overdosed or is otherwise traumatized. These are tough conditions that many would not chose to work in.” Mark Townsend: the Portland Hotel Society’s work must go on. (National Post Editorial)

“If [the founding directors] had paid themselves $40K per year more over the 3 years in question (a figure of approximately $500K- 4 people X $40k X 3 years) and paid the controversial excesses out of their own pockets 3 things would have happened. 1. Their wages would have still been lower than the top 4 BC Housing Execs. 2. They still would have been far more effective than any other organization, including BC Housing. 3. Nobody would have cared. But they screwed up and there are enough people in power who hate them for their activism and lack of bureaucratic process that have been waiting, salivating for this moment.” I work for the PHS. (blog)

“Did the PHS board need to quit/ be let go? That depends…, did they lose confidence within the eyes of front-line workers or service users?  From what I’m seeing in social media and some news that bothered to talk to people directly affected, the answer is ‘no’.  People remain confident in the services, programming and overall harm reduction mission that PHS facilitates.” The Facts on PHS Scandal and Following Reactions of critics, Boards and Jenny Kwan. (blog)


Samah Idriss speaks at Israeli Apartheid Week 2014

Samah Idriss spoke on a panel along with Carrie Lester and David from CAIA at Israeli Apartheid Week tonight. It was a historically significant event for two reasons. First because we don’t hear a lot of voices from the Arab world outside Palestine in relation to the boycott Israel movement, and second because of the analytical links he made between armed and civil struggle in the Lebanese context.

Lebanon is a very different environment in which to do organizing for the boycott of Israel than North America. The first reason is, boycotting Israel is already the law. This would seem to be a large advantage. However, Israeli and Israeli linked companies have found ways to circumvent the anti-Normalization legislation and penetrate the Lebanese market. The fact that so many apologists for normalization exist in Lebanon, especially among intellectuals, is according to Idriss evidence that the laws that prescribe the boycott of Israel are no replacement for consciousness-organizing. Another reason is Idriss campaign is not actually part of BDS – his “Campaign to boycott supporters of Israel” began before the BDS call, and was motivated from watching the Israeli massacre Palestinians in Jenin. Idriss’ campaign is not opposed to BDS, however, but rather that the specific context of Lebanon requires a different approach than is appropriate in countries where boycotting Israel is not already a state law.

Idriss is a key link between boycott organizing and the Arab League boycott of Israel. Despite the fact that Syria is in the grips of an uprising, the Arab League boycott of Israel committee is still meeting once or so per year, and the presence of his movement at these meetings has caused the Arab League Boycott to adopt this boycott of several new companies including cosmetics companies operating in Lebanon, as well as to re-instate Nestle to the boycott list, which seems to have only been removed because of some corruption inside the Syrian regime.

Idriss is a key figure also because he edits an important cultural magazine. Imagine if a major editor of a significant cultural magazine in North America was pro-BDS! This publication is a major opportunity to call out collaborators with Israel, including perhaps business people working in North America on projects which are subject to Boycott but who have personal ties to the Arab world such that it would be embarrassing for their business dealings with Israel to be widely known. This is my own speculation, however, Idriss did not address this in his talk, or speak about any of the implications of editing an important magazine.

Idriss affirmed that organizing to boycott Israel is not opposed to armed resistance, or even a way of avoiding armed resistance, but rather that boycotts as civil resistance, and armed resistance must work together to resist the Israeli entity. He affirmed that without the use of armed resistance, Lebanon would still be occupied partially by Israel, and Israel would have colonized Lebanese lands up to the Litani river. He also pointed out that the resistance was initially secular and leftist. Lebanon is a key example of resistance, and successful resistance, against the Israelis, however paradoxically the success of armed resistance is sometimes used to dismiss the importance of civil resistance such as boycotts. However precisely because Lebanon is seen as a beacon of the resistance, convincing Lebanese people that boycotting Israel could have knock-on effects throughout the Arab world. For example, Idriss’ movement campaigned to prevent the screening of a film made in Tel Aviv by a Lebanese director (entitled “The Attack”) was successful, and subsequently it was banned in many other Arab countries.

In the question period, Idriss affirmed that his organization is committed to protecting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from racism and bad treatment. He in fact claimed that in Lebanon there is Apartheid against Palestinian refugees. He dismissed the claim that granting Palestinians normalized status, i.e. the rights to study and work, would somehow work against their right of return. He also spoke about the direct work his organization has been doing to protect the rights of a Palestinian worker who was recently fired for having a Palestinian accent.