Covering Itself with Glory: How Nonprofit Agencies are Failing Government- Sponsored Refugees

I don’t want to write this blog. I telling you I don’t. I’ve got a so-called life and stuff to do. And, honestly, I don’t have any particular axe to grind. But with the Goodwill debacle I posted about on Sunday still on my mind, ACCOUNTABILITY on my top-ten word list this week, and the fact that it is 68 days to baseball’s Opening Day on April 4, 2016 —the first ever convergence of Opening Day and Square Root Day—I don’t have many distractions at the moment.

So I’m going in.

Long story, short: A charitable organization is involved. They don’t appear to be doing their job and, news flash, they don’t want to talk much about it.

I woke up Monday morning to CBC Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway interviewing Kate Bate, a volunteer whose has been doing some pretty heavy lifting to help Syrian refugees coming to Toronto.

Kate recounted how she and another volunteer, Virginia Johnson, heard there was a group of refugees at a hotel in downtown Toronto. They, being the fabulous women they are, have been conducting clothes drives for newcomers’ specific needs while waiting for their sponsored family to arrive, so they went down to the hotel to see if folks needed anything.

What Virginia and Kate found when they got there shocked them. Virginia has written about it in yesterday’s Globe and Mail.

A group of men, women and children, who’d had arrived in Canada weeks ago, had been dropped of at a downtown “budget” hotel and, according to the refugees, no one had come to speak to them about what’s happening or see to their needs. And since they have flown halfway across the world to flee five years of war and dislocation, they might have a few needs, I’d imagine.

Yet, there had been no assistance and no medical help given. Some had been without shoes. The air was thick with desperation, Kate and Virginia said, and that situation was was so distressing, a few people wanted to go back to Jordan. The volunteers were worried about the refugees’ mental health. And frankly, so am I.

One refugee showed Kate and Virginia the business card from COSTI, a charity that offers immigrant settlement services, he was clutching in his hand. More on than in a sec.

Another refugee, who could only manage to say the word “hospital” in English, gestured to some children, indicating they were ill. After Kate and Virginia arranged for some Arab-speaking translators, they took the children and parents to Sick Kids, where the youngsters were ultimately admitted for a bacterial infection.

How can this be?

We’ve all gotten familiar with refugee lingo in the past few months. Privately-sponsored refugees have a family, church or group of neighbours or friends who set them up with everything they need and assist them with the settling in stage—accompanying them to doctor’s visits, school registration and the myriad of things you have to do. We regularly see coverage of those heart-warming pairings on the news or, happily, have Facebook friends, as I do, who are knee-deep in sponsorship and posting joyous pictures regularly.

Government-sponsored refugees are, eponymously, sponsored by the federal government. And instead of private individuals providing settlement help, the government depends on the network of charitable and nonprofit organizations they fund to do what needs to be done to ensure that newcomers are adequately looked after or “settled” well.

And that leads us back to COSTI, one of the groups the government is paying to settle refugees in Toronto.

So far, 728 private-sector sponsored (PSR) refugees and 1240 government-sponsored refugees (GSR) have landed in Toronto.

On January 20th , COSTI who had been working with GSR families, requested a five-day “pause” on their settlement work saying the families were larger than they had anticipated, and they had a hard time finding housing for them.

“We are overwhelmed,” said Mario Calla, COSTI’s Executive Director, in a radio interview. And of course they were. Housing in Toronto is tough.

I waited to hear the reasons why COSTI felt so overwhelmed. Were they not getting the money they needed from Ottawa? Were they not able to get organized? What were their obstacles? What do they need? How can we help?

But despite the interviewer trying to dig around the edges of the issue, Mario Calla didn’t say much beyond the fact they were overwhelmed by the size of the families and the Toronto housing market.

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration John McCallum agreed to the “pause” but said the government would still be bringing people in as scheduled. Hotel stays would be longer but at least the refugees would be safe, he ventured.

Back in the day when I worked at a shelter for abused women and some urgent retrofit was necessary, we had to move our residents to a hotel. Not ideal, but we continued providing all the services we could while they were there and staff, in a hotel room of our own, worked our regular shifts to keep an eye on things 24 hours a day. I imagined something similar for COSTI.

And being overwhelmed is a sympathetic line, to be sure. Because you can picture it, right? Here is a nonprofit, a charity in fact, working desperately hard, we imagine, in a crowded, messy storefront, with mismatched desks, filled with charitable people working their charitable hearts out; the veritable personification of being overwhelmed.

But the idea of being overwhelmed is also the kind of scenario that switches the victim status to the care provider, in this case COSTI, and shuts down further questions because no one, even hardened media types, wants to further overwhelm the overwhelmed.

As a side note, less sympathetic citizens interpret the notion of charitable people working their charitable hearts out to find “foreigners” housing is a reason to rev up their ignorant bigoted rants, which media outlet comment sections are full of since this story broke.

Here’s one of many 1,834 similar comments from a CBC story:

 “Wow! REFUGEES complaining about staying in a budget HOTEL for 10 days – two rooms for a family and feeling trapped because it’s cold outside?! Now, I’ve seen it all!!!”

When people think of nonprofit and charity, they think of church basements. But,COSTI is no church basement. COSTI’s budget last year was $25 million. Ninety percent of its funding comes from three levels of government and 2% comes from the United Way. Last year it raised $140,000 from donations. It has 253 full time employees and 140 part time employees.

In reality, COSTI, Toronto’s largest settlement service, is more like a government contractor than a charity.

Yet, COSTI seems to be getting the charitable pass. That’s the leeway kindly people give charities because they think there’s a built-in limited capability in charities and that it would be unseemly to expect too much. Tsk-tsk, they’re a charity. Of course they’re overwhelmed.

It’s humiliating. But more sinister is that a major player like COSTI, while helping itself to victim status, is not explaining the reality of refugees’ lives, as well as their own challenges in settling them.

In that communications vacuum, in moves the idea of whether the refugees are displaying the appropriate amount of gratitude and the notion of refugees being given resources better spent on real Canadians. Both narratives are equally sickening in their own ways.

Everyone knows this stuff is hard, that the Harper government squeezed organizations like COSTI and that the province makes organizations they fund do all kinds of reporting and stuff.

But COSTI has some explaining to do in relation to the refugees abandoned in a downtown hotel and providing a more fulsome explanation of their “pause.” I don’t think it’s an overreach to want to know:

  1. Does COSTI have anything to do with the abandoned hotel group? What are COSTI’s specific responsibilities to those people in the there, if any? Did they visit them?
  1. How much money is COSTI receiving from the federal government to look after the Syrian refugees? Is it $1 million, $5 million, $10 million? How much? For how long? What are their specific responsibilities? Is it on a per refugee basis or program basis?
  1. When COSTI decided to take a “pause” because it was so overwhelmed, did it stop all work with all refugees? What overwhelmed them?
  1. Since the government decided to accelerate the refugee process in December, COSTI has always maintained this was too much too soon. How did its leadership come to that assessment? What specific obstacles did its leadership feel prevented COSTI from quickly responding to incoming refugees?
  1. Despite opening itself up to some mockery from detractors, the government revised its refugee numbers downwards, partly based on feedback from COSTI who said they needed more time. Why, then, did COSTI ultimately blame the fact that refugees’  families were larger than they thought and the tough Toronto housing market for needing a “pause”? Why are they putting the blame on external factors only? Can they understand why an observer might interpret that as scapegoating?
  1. How many people does COSTI have working on the Syrian refugee file? How many refugees are they responsible for? Where are those refugees being housed now? What is COSTI doing with them right now?
  1. Is COSTI capable of actually capable of dealing with this issue? If COSTI cannot respond to the real and daily needs of government-sponsored refugees, should they continue to be paid to do it?

So many questions. And believe me when I tell you I was still somewhat sympathetic to COSTI’s predicament when I went onto their website to get some answers, to get educated, as it were. Since they had done some media, I figured there might be a statement, a news release, an update or something that might help explain their actions.

Upon arrival on the site, I did see an appeal for money on their homepage, along with some announcements of donations made to the Syrian relief effort. There were also some professional looking annual reports in the “About Us” section.

But when I scarpered over to COSTI’s “Media Centre,” I found that the most recent media release on file was from FEBRUARY 2009.

FEBRUARY 2009 is the last time COSTI Immigrant Services, a charitable organization with a budget of $25 million, felt the need to announce anything to the media and to the public.

And you know what that says to me. It says they don’t care for you to know anything, buster. Because they are so goddam overwhelmed.

I put a call in to them to see if anyone would pick up and was able to leave a message with their communications office. I know. I was confused too.

It seems to me that when you have a budget of $25 million, your leadership has to be able to answer for, or at least articulate, your decisions and actions. And although the Goodwill scandal is different in many ways, the same breezy treatment of accountability to the media and to the public is a quality both nonprofits, and many others, share.

Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t cut it—especially when we have 80 refugees possibly abandoned in a downtown hotel. Does COSTI not have anything to say? Even if it is to tell us it’s not their problem.

It’s getting so I can no longer stand the apron wringing, fan fluttering, victim-costumed bullshit dished out in shovelfuls by some nonprofits. I’ll say it again. The lack of accountability is HUMILIATING.

Especially knowing that if the government is counting on the nonprofit sector to provide government-sponsored refugees with what they need, they are barking up the wrong tree, at least in this town.

It might be disappointing for the federal government to realize this. But, believe me, we are all disappointed. John McCallum’s best bet is to do what can be done to transfer as many files as he can to private sponsors. He should do it sooner rather than later.

Because the ferocious gap between privately-sponsored refugees and government-sponsored refugees is outrageous and portend bad things to come.

And there we have it. There’s my rant.

But before I go, I want to also say that you can’t tar all nonprofits with the same brush.

There are nonprofits in our town and country doing breathtakingly beautiful work, changing lives, saving lives, bringing hope, and bursting with energy and vision. They are led by people who not only want to be seen as capable, but also as game changing.

They communicate with news releases, social media, and sidewalk chalk. They assess their impact, consult the community, and do their job because they feel like they want to change the world, solve wicked problems and bring sunshine to life.

They are accountable because they demand accountability from others.

Gail PiAuthor Photo 01 Sandy Tam Photographycco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years, most of which as President of Gail Picco Associates. Prior to establishing Gail Picco Associates, she spent eight years working in a shelter for assaulted women and children. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, of Your Working Girl, a blog of memoir and commentary on politics, charity and popular culture, and writes a regular column for Hilborn Charity News. She is a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival.

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