Every Friday afternoon, lawyer Stephanie Giannandrea sets up a table at Covenant House’s drop-in centre. She offers free and confidential legal advice to youth experiencing homelessness. On other occasions, she provides workshops for those enrolled in the agency’s programs to teach them about their legal rights. The workshops cover topics such as how to access legal assistance, rights when interacting with police, employment, housing, what your legal rights are if you’ve been victimized, income supports and a variety of other legal issues.
Youth experiencing homelessness may also face legal challenges that are the result of complex personal and social circumstances and need guidance, support and representation to navigate them. Unfortunately, there are complicated barriers, including a lack of financial resources, social isolation and mistrust that may often prevent those who need legal assistance from getting the help they need.
That’s why Stephanie makes sure each young person who sees her knows they are welcome, and her legal advice will be offered in a judgment-free environment. “My approach to the work I do is always rooted in kindness.”
Sebastien, a youth receiving support from Covenant House who comes into the drop-in centre from time to time, says he looks forward to discussing his legal issues with Stephanie. “In my times of crisis dealing with the law, the legal services in the drop-in helped me gain the confidence I needed to stand strong in front of adversity.”
Stephanie’s goal when working with the young people is clear: helping youth navigate a complicated legal system. “Often, this can be a young person’s first experience with a lawyer, so I try to make sure they have a positive experience and that I am accountable to them and responsive to their needs,” she says.
Stephanie is one of the lawyers who run Street Youth Legal Services (SYLS), a program of the legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth. SYLS is specially designed to provide legal services and meet the needs of young people experiencing unstable housing. SYLS lawyers have been helping youth at Covenant House since its inception in 1999, and provides legal information, advice, referrals and representation to youth who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness.