Housing crisis at forefront as Legal Assistance of Windsor turns 50

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The local housing crisis has emerged as a foremost challenge for the work of Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW), which is celebrating five decades of achievements.

Over the last 50 years, LAW adapted to the changing needs of the community, and the organization is already looking at upcoming challenges and how it will need to pivot.

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“We are going to have to be really aware of what is happening with the housing crisis and how we might be able to support people, and how we can address the unaffordability of housing for low-income people,” said Shelley Gilbert, LAW’s interim executive director, is the housing crisis.

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“People cannot afford housing, even in Windsor, which tends to have historically low rental rates. People cannot afford it when they are on social benefits.”

LAW — which offers free legal and advocacy services to eligible individuals — is also working to address the challenges faced by those experiencing mental health, addiction, homelessness, and intimate partner violence.

While it is difficult to quantify how many cases the legal aid clinic has handled since 1974, Gilbert said the figure is in the thousands.

LAW celebrated the milestone during its annual general meeting at Art Windsor Essex on Wednesday. The night showcased various programs created by the legal aid clinic, with a keynote address by Danardo Jones, assistant professor at the University of Windsor faculty of law.

As LAW enters a phase of strategic planning, it is seeking feedback from community partners to assist in its evolving role in the community.

“We’ve always been able to pivot our work to the changing needs of Windsor and Essex County,” said Gilbert.

“We’re constantly trying to be aware of what is happening in this broader community and what is Legal Assistance of Windsor’s role in addressing these new, complex needs that come forward.”

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Chief among those pivots was addressing the needs of individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially advocating for migrant workers who were isolated and sick.

“We’re still in the process coming out of COVID of really trying to address some of the recovery needs of this community,” Gilbert said.

“There’s a really big increase in mental unwellness, of homelessness, of people suffering from substance misuse.

“So how does that then impact their housing needs? And how do we support people to become well again?”

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In 2002, alongside its community partners, LAW launched an anti-trafficking project, now known as the Windsor-Essex Counter Exploitation Network, which provides services to survivors of domestic and international exploitation.

Gilbert said this initiative, which is still relevant today, is a prime example of LAW’s close collaboration with community partners to recognize and tackle local issues.

“When people are struggling they often need both professions to come together to address both the legal needs and the advocacy needs,” she said.

“What has always been at the core of LAW’s work is this interdisciplinary understanding of how legal and social needs come together.”

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