Job Opening: Crime Fighter, No Cape Required.

By Ann McRae

 

Today’s crime fighters wear jeans and sweaters, carry a cell phone and work for a vast network of modestly funded agencies.

Furthering Our Communities: Uniting Services (FOCUS) Rexdale is the City of Toronto’s first foray into a model of crime prevention that was first developed in Glasgow and later tested in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

 A familiar scenario

Picture this:

A young man with low education and a low-paying part-time job is stressed out over his limited chance to improve his financial situation, and by his six year old child’s untreated autism. He snaps over one more degrading remark at work, and quits. He goes home angry, damages his own door when he kicks it open, not knowing his autistic son was holding it shut. He rages at the child, gets in a scuffle with his girlfriend who calls the police.

The police order him to leave for the night. He gets stoned and comes back. Mother and children flee.

A police officer takes them to a shelter, arresting him the next morning. A shelter worker sees signs, which obliges her to contact Children’s Aid Society. The children are placed in foster care.

The landlord sees police cars and upset neighbours. The landlord begins an application to terminate tenancy due to the illegal act of damages to his property.

The social assistance worker is asked to re-direct the assistance cheque to the mother, but doesn’t know the young man had been working.

Social assistance levies a large debt against the family, and reduces assistance because the children are in foster care.

Rent falls behind while eviction proceeds.

 

What if…

…all the agencies that know about this family’s troubles could sit together?

…the child’s school referred the parents to some support?

…support or hope or counselling could help the father keep things in control?

…the police, crown attorney and duty counsel could divert the man from conviction to community service for the housing provider?

…the housing provider could hire him as a painter, after his community service?

…he could avoid a conviction and be so proud of his success that he opened a painting business?

 So, where do we start?

Community initiatives are always hard work. Justifying every nickel of funding is also hard work, because the results are very difficult to measure. How does one put a price tag on changing lives and changing communities?

In Rexdale, groups including the City of Toronto, youth crisis agencies, public housing providers, Toronto social services, Toronto Police Services and Rexdale Community Legal Clinic gather at the table. In this context, “coming to the table” is not just jargon. It is a weekly meeting!

Following the Saskatchewan model, the purpose of FOCUS Rexdale is first, to identify a person or family at high risk of:

  • gang activity
  • violent incident
  • criminal involvement
  • homelessness
  • suicide.

Often, there is a complex web of issues or a snowballing of events that create the high risk situation.

 

What’s on the table at FOCUS Rexdale?

When all the partner agencies gather behind locked doors, then what? Who will be the one to mention this family?

Maybe it will be someone from social services or a police officer who flags what has happened.  Or perhaps it will be the Youth Justice Worker at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic. She got a call from the father on the morning of his release. Duty counsel at the courthouse, after a short conversation with his wife, identified him as a person at extreme risk. The entire family unit fits this red-flagging measure when immediate intervention is needed.

Too often, the legal clinic gets called only when an eviction is looming, or a suspension from social assistance has caused enormous rent arrears to pile up, or when an eviction has already happened, or when a jail term has just ended. At Rexdale, special project funding allows us to be “at the table” and to be part of the change that is needed.

If all legal clinics could partner with all service agencies in this way, it would be the legal equivalent of distributing flu shots for free. It would stop the spread of the diseases of despair and crime and the cycle of poverty.

Ann McRae is the Director of Legal Services at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic.

 

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Be the Change: the First Hurdle is the Hardest

Sam, a high school athlete, faces discouraging barriers until one person, then another, then another, decides to make a difference....

Sam, a high school athlete, faces discouraging barriers until one person, then another, then another, decides to make a difference….Read about it in our story!

 

Before he crouches in the starting blocks, Sam can see the university track team coach, standing at the finish line, holding up a university team uniform. Between Sam and that uniform are several hurdles with the first in letters so large that they make the first hurdle taller than all the rest. He reads, “Fee to apply: $95.”

If Sam can’t raise $95, it doesn’t matter that he can easily clear the academic and Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) application hurdles.

“Sam” is not his real name, but his university application dilemma is a real life story currently unfolding in Etobicoke.

A year ago, Sam didn’t dream about track or about university. He had money from odd jobs for drug dealers and gang members. So, how did he change direction?

If you care about the answers, you can be part of the change.

The Youth Justice Initiative

Rexdale Community Legal Clinic’s new Youth Justice Initiative was the catalyst.

When Sam had trouble with the law, a duty counsel lawyer put him in touch with Camieka Woodhouse, our Youth Justice Initiative worker.

She discovered that he had the potential to continue onto university and that his athletic prowess would probably assure him of a scholarship. Suddenly, Sam could see horizons that had previously been completely blocked by the ugly brick buildings encircling his neighbourhood. Once he could “see” the university, he began to work and dream and train.

Sensing a change in him, Camieka asked some probing questions. She was familiar with the barrier posed by the Ontario Universities Application Centre process.

Moneyed families, preparing to fork out large amounts for their children to succeed, barely notice the registration fee.  On the other hand, young people without family supports or money are completely stymied. They’re only eligible for OSAP if they are accepted into university, and they cannot be accepted because they cannot afford to apply.

Because of this fairly modest barrier, budding opportunities die.

Where legal clinics can step in to help

Legal clinics are funded by Legal Aid Ontario to provide access to justice for low income residents in their communities.

Most clinic workers understand this can go beyond legal remedies and could include reducing poverty, increasing access to education and generally making a difference in any way that they can. And so, Camieka began searching for the non-legal remedy. Without it, she worried that Sam would return to his previous career options, mostly involving various forms of crime and ultimately, violence and incarceration.

Camieka believes that Sam has the ability to cross the other hurdles without her, but she was very concerned that he would turn to his former criminal associates to get the registration fee, and that this would amount to “falling off the wagon.”

Unknown to Sam, several conversations cascaded into a happy ending. A conversation at the clinic led to a request to a service club, and within 24 hours, the Knights of Columbus had come up with more than enough for Sam to launch his career plan.

Being the Change

At the clinic, we puzzle over how to create a pool of funds for cases like Sam’s and how to make guidance counsellors, youth counsellors and students aware of it.

Too many in our community face these hurdles:

  • growing up in poverty
  • bad role models for future paths
  • lack of opportunities for youth

Camieka sees her clients strolling around the starting line, studying the hurdles. On either side of the hurdles, there are “run off” lanes where the finish line is much closer. At the end of that line, a corrections officer is holding not a lycra tracksuit, but a cotton prison uniform.

Finding another path is about Being the Change: partnering and networking in our community and reducing poverty by addressing the causes.

Camieka is one of many people at our clinic and in our community who is part of the change. Now, so is Sam.

 

Footnote: Sam is a real person. For purposes of this article, Sam has been given a fictitious name.  Camieka Woodhouse is a real person, who has moved on to a different job, as real people do. Her work with young people at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic is being carried on by Tameka Francis.

 

Ann McRae is the Director of Legal Services at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic.