Toronto legal clinic in jeopardy

A legal clinic offering services to 1,500 homeless people is in jeopardy due to looming funding cuts.

The financial threat arises after Legal Aid Ontario announced it would stop funding the clinic due to governance and other concerns. While the legal services available through West Toronto Community Legal Services are on the line, the housing help services funded by the City of Toronto are also at risk.

“If our funding is cut, the city’s housing help services will no longer have a home,” says clinic lawyer Barbara Warner.

“The city funding does not cover rent, for example. The housing help services will be interrupted. The housing help services include workers connecting clients with suitable housing, assisting clients with looking for units, setting up direct payment arrangements for their rent, and more.”

The clinic runs the housing help program through funding from the city that covers salaries, payroll taxes, and office supplies for staff. It includes a case manager for people with complex needs. The city also contributes towards supervision of those workers and the program itself.

Through funding of about $600,000 from Legal Aid Ontario, the legal side of the service helps up to 1,000 clients a year. LAO is the clinic’s only source of funding for legal services. But the money is set to run out March 31.

Four lawyers at the clinic provide immigration, income support, housing, human rights, and employment services. Two part-time intake workers provide referrals and information about the process and offer practical advice,
including on how to apply for a legal aid certificate. In addition, a community legal worker supports all areas of practice.

LAO, which had earlier announced it wouldn’t reinstate funding for the clinic, has now re-entered negotiations with it.
Warner says the reasons for withdrawing funding from the clinic involve historic board and personnel problems that it has now resolved.

A new board began work last June to address “every concern at the clinic.” Warner says a new interim management structure is now in place and productivity has improved significantly. At the same time, the clinic is reviewing record-keeping practices.

“We are seeking funding to look at the future of the clinic,” says Warner.
“We have been successful under a new board of directors in achieving improved staff stability, improved service statistics, and various cost savings. These changes were achieved in just six months.

The new board has a plan for the future which focuses on the efficient use of resources, transparent and accountable decision-making, and the delivery of the highest-quality services to the community.”

LAO funds clinics to provide services to low-income people or disadvantaged groups. Typical services include providing poverty law support on matters such as housing and shelter, income maintenance, social assistance and other government programs, human rights, health, employment, and education.

LAO spokesman Kristian Justesen says the organization is participating in a formal funding decision process with the clinic following a request for reconsideration.

LAO had announced it wouldn’t approve the clinic’s funding request on Nov. 27. Citing personnel issues, neither LAO nor West Toronto Community Legal Services would release a copy of the reasons.

“The board considered information related to LAO’s persistent and unresolved concerns regarding [the clinic’s] board governance, reporting, and financial and human resources management practices,” says Justesen.
“There has been no final decision on the reconsideration. Funding continues in the normal course and there is no disruption to services for clients.”

The current process to review that decision follows procedures set out in the Legal Aid Services Act and the funding agreement contained in the Legal Aid Ontario clinic memorandum of understanding. In the meantime, the clinic has an ally in Jonah Schein, who worked in the community prior to becoming the NDP MPP for the Davenport riding in 2011.

“If there are issues that still need to be addressed, I think they should be addressed, [but] not by removing the service from our neighbourhood,” he says.
“My main concern is that the community is going to lose these services.”

Schein likes the clinic’s one-stop shopping approach to services covering legal issues, housing, and mental-health support. Having worked in the community prior to becoming a politician, Schein says there’s a need to have the services available nearby.

“From an economic perspective . . . it seems a very smart way to deliver services.”
Toronto housing officials are also keeping a close eye on the issue as the funding decision could affect services in that area.

“Right now, our understanding is that West Toronto Community Legal Services has filed an appeal and it is up to the agency to provide the city with a contingency plan should the appeal be unsuccessful,” says Patricia Anderson, partnership development and support manager for Toronto’s shelter, support, and housing administration division.

“Housing help services include working with clients to avoid eviction and find housing. Services include assisting with applications for subsidized housing, working through any issues there might be with a landlord, referring people to rent bank loans if they are eligible, and accessing any utility programs that might apply.

“We would work with others in the housing help sector to minimize any service disruption that might arise because of the situation with the West Toronto Community Legal Services.”

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