Homeless Connect…to Legal Services

This last Sunday (October 20, 2013), Homeward Trust held its 11th bi-annual Homeless Connect event at the Shaw Conference Centre. The event brings together service providers and community agencies from across the city to provide a “one-stop shop” of services for the over 1,500 attendees that are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness. Although legal service providers like ECLC and Student Legal Services (SLS) have participated for several years, for the first time the major legal service providers organized themselves not by agency, but rather combined to form a “legal hub”. This setup allowed not only interagency cooperation to provide more holistic services to low-income clients (161 of them over the 5-hour event!), but also led to the collection of very interesting data on the incidence of various legal problems among the city’s homeless population.

This legal hub was composed of staff and volunteers from ECLC, Legal Aid, SLS, and the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA). As clients entered the hub, they were greeted by Legal Service Officers (LSOs) from Legal Aid who assessed their legal situations, and then sent them to one of the civil, family, or criminal law booths where lawyers were ready to provide summary legal advice. Clients left the hub with detailed instructions regarding their options and next steps.

One of the major advantages of organizing the legal hub in this integrated manner is efficient identification of the best organization to provide follow-up services. In the previous model where each agency had their own booth, the ECLC might (for example) refer a client over to the SLS table hoping SLS would be able to take on the file; many clients would then find that SLS could not assist them and be referred to a third service provider. Needless to say, this constant chain of referrals adds to clients’ frustration, often delaying resolution of the problem and thereby making it worse. In contrast, on Sunday the SLS students were shadowing the lawyers from Legal Aid and ECLC as the lawyers provided clients with legal advice; rather than referring clients to other tables, we were able to determine on the spot which agency could best provide follow-up services. As a result, SLS was able to take on at least two files, ECLC was able to book several appointments for our evening clinics, and one lawyer even agreed to provide pro bono services for a client. Legal Aid LSOs were also able to direct cases to their Legal Services Centre, and all students and lawyers were supported by CPLEA and SLS’ excellent set of publications, providing informative issue-specific handout material. For these individuals who have – much like many other low-income individuals accessing legal services – been given a “run-around” as they try to resolve their problems, we thus provided an efficient way to get the best advice from the right providers, all at one place.

The other advantage of joining forces was the prominence the legal hub had at the event; 161 clients dropped by the legal hub to get help, 126 of whom were able to speak to either an LSO or a lawyer to get detailed advice on their next steps.[i] This gave us the rare opportunity to track the incidence of specific legal issues among individuals that are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. The chart below lists the frequency of different legal issues among the 126 clients to whom we provided substantial service.

Legal Issue

Number of Clients

Overall Percentage

Civil

53

42%

Landlord and Tenant

13

10%

General Litigation[ii]

12

10%

Wills and Estates

7

6%

Taxes

6

5%

Social Benefits

5

4%

Immigration

4

3%

Debt and Bankruptcy

4

3%

Employment

2

2%

Criminal

50

40%

Facing charges

21

17%

Facing fines

19

15%

Miscellaneous[iii]

10

8%

Family

23

18%

Separation and Divorce

8

6%

Parenting and Access

7

6%

Child Welfare

6

5%

Child Support

2

2%

Of course, this data collection is by no means scientific – the data set is self-selecting, and the sample size is not large enough to allow for meaningful inferences about the homeless population to be drawn. We are also unable to answer the important question of what percentage of the overall homeless population faces legal issues like the ones above – all we can say is that around 10% of the attendees at Homeless Connect dropped by the legal hub. Nevertheless, it does give us a glimpse at what may be some major issues facing the population (e.g. landlord-tenant disputes, facing criminal charges, facing fines).

At the next Homeless Connect (in April 2014), it will perhaps be useful to further delineate the landlord-tenant issues faced by clients. Homelessness is of course inherently tied to housing issues, a connection underscored by the fact that about a quarter of all civil issues at the event were landlord-tenant disputes. It would therefore be interesting to determine which kinds of legal disputes with landlords led clients to their current situation. A discovery of patterns could have implications for public legal education designed for the homeless and at-risk demographic. For organizations like ECLC and SLS, where a significant portion of clients face problems with landlords, these findings would show how the relevancy of their current residential tenancy practice extends to individuals that are already homeless.

In a future blog post, I would also like to compare the incidence of these legal problems with those found by Ab Currie in The Legal Problems of Everyday Life among the Canadian population at large, and again in A National Survey of The Civil Justice Problems of Low and Moderate Income Canadians: Incidence and Patterns.

In the meantime, I would like to thank Deanne Friesen (Director of the Legal Aid Legal Services Centre), Rochelle Johannson (Staff Lawyer at CPLEA), and Eric Mahood (Homeless Connect coordinator at SLS) for their help in bringing this idea of a legal hub to life. Let’s do this again in April.


[i] The other 35 individuals – 20 of whom were agency representatives – dropped by the hub to simply pick up print publications.

[ii] Includes matters such as insurance, small claims, medical complaints, and human rights concerns.

[iii] Includes matters such as police brutality, getting pardons, and seeking record suspension.

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About Taha Hassan

Taha is the Operations Specialist at the Edmonton Community Legal Centre. Among other roles, he is in charge of the Family Law Project, organizing ECLC's public legal education programs, and managing the Access Review. He is a recent graduate of the University of Alberta School of Business.
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4 Responses to Homeless Connect…to Legal Services

  1. Monika Wichman says:

    Sounds like a new idea that had positive outcomes for the homeless participants and legal service participants. Excellent write-up of the experience!

  2. This was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how the legal community can and should continue to come together to help some of the most vulnerable individuals in the province. Legal Aid Alberta was pleased to be part of this and look forward to the next event!

  3. Eric Mahood says:

    Very interesting look at the homeless connect stats. This was my third time attending homeless connect with Student Legal Services. I was only there for the first part of the day, but from what I saw the centralized legal booth was head and shoulders above the old system with booths separated by agency, especially in making it easier and faster for participants to get the help they needed. Homeless individuals often get or feel like they are getting the runaround from agencies, and any system which avoids that is important. Great work setting it up Taha!

  4. Carol Cass says:

    I was there as a volunteer and checked it out – It drew me in and I was very impressed
    Great work

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