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Homeless legal service shuts after SA Govt funding cut

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A community legal service that provides free advice to more than 500 South Australians who experience homelessness each year will be forced to shut at the end of this month following a State Government funding cut.

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The board of the Welfare Rights Centre this morning announced it would cease operating its Housing Legal Clinic on June 30, after negotiations with the State Government failed to provide assurance of a future funding arrangement.

The centre – which celebrated its 30th year of operation last year – has been operating its Housing Legal Clinic for the last two years on cash reserves and $176,000 in State Government funding.

Chair Malcolm Downes said depleting cash reserves and a State Government decision to cut funding left the board with “no choice” but to cease the service.

“This was a hard decision for the Board to make, particularly in the light of the worsening crisis of homelessness and unstable housing in South Australia,” he said.

“To provide certainty for our clients, our partner legal firms and community organisations and our staff, we had to make a tough call.”

The centre’s Pirie Street clinic provides advice and referrals to more than 500 people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness each year, using a network of pro bono lawyers and volunteers.

The Welfare Rights Centre had previously provided a free legal service to people in danger of being evicted from their properties and a service to assist Centrelink clients through the administrative appeals process, but those services were wrapped up following a separate State Government funding cut under Labor in 2017.

Downes said the board met with State Government representatives in April to discuss a funding extension of the Housing Legal Clinic until the end of January next year.

He said the State Government could not provide the Welfare Rights Centre with certainty it would be funded under the Government’s new Housing and Homelessness Strategy, which Downes  expected to be finalised by the beginning of next year.

“The problem for us was… we could get no certainty of funding beyond the 30th of June and even if we did there was no certainty of any services to be funded beyond January 2020,” Downes said.

“It was a double whammy really, because even if we’d been successful in negotiating an extension to the contract until January 2020, then there was no certainty beyond that.

“We were continually running down our cash reserves to the point where we really may not have been able to pay out the entitlements to staff and make a decent end to the whole thing.”

Downes said the centre currently has four part-time staff – all of whom he said would be made redundant at the end of this month.

He said Welfare Rights Centre would close its Pirie Street office on June 21 before wrapping up the Housing Legal Clinic on June 30.

“We’re not crying over this… we just thought it (the Housing Legal Clinic) was a very valuable and very good value-for-money service,” Downes said.

“I think what’s happened is it’s kind of got lost in the Government’s uncertainty about what they’re going to do about homelessness.

“You might have thought some action on homelessness might have been done but it seems they’re all putting everything off until they do this major review, which is supposed to produce this radical vision.

“In the meantime, 500 people experiencing homelessness won’t get a service.”

In a statement to InDaily, Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink confirmed that the State Government had decided to end its funding arrangement with the Welfare Rights Centre.

She said the decision to cut funding was based on “performance issues”.

“Over several months, the SA Housing Authority has been actively engaged with the WRC regarding long-standing concerns with the performance of their service,” she said. 

“When we grant taxpayer-funded money to any organisation it is critically important we have certain performance criteria attached to that funding.

“Unfortunately, WRC was unable to put forward proposals to address performance issues, and it was determined funding would cease.”

Lensink said in 2017 the previous Government redirected funding allocated to the Welfare Rights Centre to Uniting Communities.

“I thank the Welfare Right Centre for their work in helping vulnerable South Australians over the years,” she said. 

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