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
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.
...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
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. While this only offers a measure of protection, we are stronger to meet the challenge when it comes to our door. Similarly, strong partnerships can shore up our resources, strengthen our communities, and help stop the spread of the diseases that are despair, crime and the cycle of poverty.
Ann McRae is the Director of Legal Services at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic.
This piece originally appeared on Rexdale Community Legal Clinic’s blog.