Poppy under pressure: Veterans forced to ‘sing for their supper’
Calgarians are raising questions about how veterans in the city are being treated by those mandated to help them.
Global News has learned new policies have been put in place at the Veterans Food Bank, requiring veterans to provide proof of service and other financial documents in order to get assistance.
“It’s a lot of personal stuff,” veteran Terry Anderson said. “It took me eight months to get my certificate from the military to show I was actually a member.”
Anderson said he left the Canadian Army after serving in Germany and Cyprus. Years later, he found himself on the streets before finding affordable housing made possible in part by the Calgary Poppy Fund, which runs the Veterans Food Bank.
“I was living on the streets and they bought me work boots and jeans,” Anderson said.
But Anderson believes there’s been a shift within the organization – one that he said has resulted in him no longer being able to receive hampers from the Veterans Food Bank because of his $1,500 per month income.
The questions on the Calgary Poppy Fund’s intake form ask veterans to supply an income statement and information regarding their bonds, property/furniture and life insurance. They’re also asked how much they spend monthly on “entertainment/recreation.”
In comparison, the Calgary Food Bank, which assists all Calgarians looking for support, said it does not ask for an income statement. Its intake form asks applicants for sources of income including their job, child tax and child benefit/support and their living expenses.
“If the client is considered ‘over income’ on paper, we dig deeper to find out if there was an event in their life that has put them in crisis for food,” Calgary Food Bank media relations supervisor Shawna Ogston wrote in an email to Global News.
Sources tell Global News excluding December’s Christmas hampers, food hamper donations to veterans have declined from 120 to 50 per month.
“If people are hungry, it’s donated, let them have it,” Anderson said. “Because there are some people who really need it.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Susan Mueller, a former volunteer at the Veterans Food Bank.
“It’s bad enough that you’re reduced to this, but then to be further embarrassed, humiliated… it’s just unnecessary.”
Mueller said she had a meeting in February 2017 with Calgary Poppy Fund trustees to address some of her concerns about how a veteran without proper documentation was treated at the food bank. She said she was deeply troubled by the organization’s response.
“I had a meeting with an individual from the poppy office and he said to me, ‘How do you know he was hungry?’ I said, ‘How do you know he wasn’t?'”
Mueller said ultimately nothing was done.
“You know their idea of addressing a complaint? ‘If we ignore it long enough, it will disappear.’”
In the last year, the Calgary Poppy Fund has seen four changes in management.
John Rathwell took on the position of general manager in October.
Rathwell said the collection of information at the Veterans Food Bank is imperative to helping its clients.
“We’re not trying to disrespect anybody at all.”
“It’s not just about assessing whether they make a lot of money or lesser amount of money,” Rathewll said. “We can also understand through that due diligence where they might need other assistance.”
Charity Intelligence, a Toronto based foundation that rates the transparency of hundreds of charities, claims it’s received numerous complaints about the Calgary Poppy Fund.
“What I am concerned about is the number of calls and emails we get here in Toronto from people with a lot of concerns with what is happening at the Calgary Poppy Fund,” managing director Kate Bahen said.
Bahen said the Calgary Poppy Fund is on Charity Intelligence’s radar because the organization is the second largest donor-funded veterans charity in Canada.
“Calgary Poppy Fund is one of the lowest-rated charities at Charity Intelligence. It’s in the lowest five per cent of the 700 charities we cover.”
Bahen points to a lack of basic information on the Calgary Poppy Fund’s website.
“How many veterans did it help last year? What kind of programs? What kind of activities? What’s its mission statement, what’s its strategy? What are its results?”
But the Calgary Poppy Fund said it is trying to improve its rating.
“Our website has a lot to be desired. I’m looking to bring in some web designers to give us a hand. There will be links to financials and our success stories.”
There are veterans who stand behind the Calgary Poppy Fund and agree more stringent policies at the Veterans Food Bank should be in place.
“The rules are the rules and the Poppy Fund is there to be used, not abused,” veteran Jim Sullivan said. “I could say I’m a rocket scientist – that doesn’t mean I am.”
Still, Mueller believes there is a better way of doing things.
“I understand checks and balances, you need that. But you can do it in a compassionate way, in a discreet way, in a non-judgmental way.”
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