11/24/2014 05:22 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST

Leave Out Violence denied funding, despite staff recommendations

A Halifax agency that helps troubled young people find jobs has been left with questions after a funding cut. Leave Out Violence, or LOVE, works with young people who are considered vulnerable to violence or crime. 

This spring, LOVE's "Links Employability Program" abruptly lost its federal funding from Employment and Social Development Canada.

The program had been in operation for 10 years and received no explanation why the funds were cut at that time. 

CBC News has obtained documents that show civil servants recommended the funding be renewed, but the minister responsible decided not to give approval.

The report was completed on Dec. 20, 2013, and Minister Jason Kenney chose not to approve it on Feb. 14, 2014. A series of bureaucrats up to the level of the senior associate deputy minister approved the project.

Kenney was the only person who did not give approval. He did not state any reasons for his decision on the report. 

LOVE requested $191,105, which would have provided funding for two co-ordinators to run the program, the cost of paying minimum wage to participants and the costs of program activities.

The report spoke well of LOVE's past programs and results. 

"No issues in the past with administering this program. They have been doing this for over 10 years and have always had great results," the report states.

"As demonstrated through financial and activity monitoring results on past agreements, youth programs administered by LOVE have been extremely successful therefore they have demonstrated their ability and capacity to administer this type of project and similar projects in the future," the report continued in another section. 

Under a section entitled "value for money," the report stated, "the cost per participant is $18,870 which is below the maximum amount of $25,000 under the skills link directives for a project with multiple interventions. It represents good value for money because it will help 12 youth gain life and employability skills as well as work experience that will enable them to find employment or return to school. All costs have been verified and deemed necessary to achieve the expected results of the project." 

The project was recommended for ministerial approval. Civil servants recommended LOVE receive $226,442, which was roughly $35,000 more than the organization requested. 

"That feels to me like a report card, and we got straight A's," says Sarah MacLaren, the executive director of LOVE. "We got a really good report card, and then we failed the year."

Department responds

CBC News requested an interview with Kenney, but he was not available. The media relations section of Employment and Social Development Canada responded by email. 

"The department receives many requests for funding, however not all applications can be selected," wrote Julie Hahn, a spokesperson for the department. 
"This organization was seeking $226,442 to conduct an intervention for 12 youth in Halifax and its last two interventions have employed only 42 per cent, which is far below the skills link average. Its last proposal was expected to cost over $45,000 per job created with minimal contributions from employers," Hahn wrote. 

Youth Skills Link is the category of project under which LOVE made its application. Hahn did not provide the Skills Link average for employment. 

"Skills Link project proposals must have a work experience component and targeted results that meet a minimum 70 per cent success rate (participants employed and who return to school) with the expectation that the majority of participants will find employment after the project," Hahn wrote. "When deciding which projects should receive funding, it is also important to ensure good value for taxpayers' money."

The criteria pointed out by Hahn were not listed in the recommendation report that was sent to the minister. 

In emails obtained by CBC News, program officers confirmed that at the time of the December 2013 report, LOVE's application met the terms and conditions of the Skills Link program. In her email, Hahn stated the decision was made "following further assessment at the approval stage."

A higher risk population

LOVE's program results from the last three years were listed in the report to the minister. After the program finished last year, 42 per cent of the participants were employed, 33 per cent went back to school, and 25 per cent were neither employed nor in school. 

Stephen Schneider, professor of criminology and sociology at Saint Mary's, says he believes the employment numbers are low because LOVE is serving a population that has particularly high barriers to employment. Schneider's area of research is crime prevention through social development. He calls the department's reasoning an over simplification. 

"I take issue with these conclusions, because the population that LOVE works with is one that you can't simply measure by the number of jobs created. You're dealing with a high risk, very unemployable population. Young people with low levels of education, mental health problems, substance abuse problems," he says. 

"The benefits to not just the program participants, but to society as a whole, far outstrips the absolute number of jobs created. So you have to look at not just how many jobs LOVE's created, but the population it works with, and the great benefit to society that LOVE delivers when it works with at-risk youth and provides job training to at risk youth."

Links results

2013 - 12 total participants

5 (42%) participants employed
4 (33%) participants returned to school
3 (25%) participants neither employed nor returned to school

2012 - 12 total participants

5 (42%) participants employed
4 (33%) participants returned to school
3 (25%) participants neither employed nor returned to school

2011 - 12 total participants

6 (50%) participants employed
4 (33%) participants returned to school
2 (17%) participants neither employed nor returned to school

Program targeted vulnerable youth

The Links Employability Program took 12 youth each year, who were usually between the ages of 19 and 26. The candidates were chosen from people who had challenges holding down a regular job.

The Links program paid participants minimum wage for five months and taught them skills like writing resumes and doing job interviews. Participants also completed practical courses like first aid, hazardous materials training, and food handlers' certification. 

"Some of them were certainly reintegrating from the criminal justice system back into the community," says MacLaren. "That's a very hard adjustment, very difficult to find gainful employment once you have a conviction and to explain a gap in your resume of two years. How do you explain that to an employer? That takes some skills. Addictions, mental health issues, homelessness, all sorts of things." 

Alvero Wiggins graduated from the Links program five years ago. He has a young son, and at that time he had dropped out of high school. For a short time he stocked shelves at Canadian Tire. 

"It was insane. I couldn't handle it, I hated it. And I just felt like I needed some kind of change, some kind of positive change, something to change my trajectory," Wiggins said. "It was very depressing. And so my mind was going to alternatives. What else can I do to make money? How else can I make money?" 

Wiggins says within the LOVE program he felt supported, and was able to learn skills and take time to figure out his next career move. After leaving the program he worked at a cafe, and he now works with the Hope Blooms community garden project. Wiggins says it was difficult for him to hear the news about the end of the Links program. 

"It was like losing a limb. That phantom feeling of something should be there, but it's not there," he says. 

Justifying the costs

MacLaren of LOVE agrees the cost of the program per participant is high, but she believes it is justified. 

"An $18,000 investment in someone in their early 20s at the beginning of their career, at the beginning of their lives, is a drop in the bucket compared to what that person may cost you if they are system dependent for the rest of their lives," she says. 

MacLaren says she does not mind being asked to prove that LOVE's program results are worth the money. 

"Applications to the federal government are intense. They demand a lot of scrutiny. And they should demand a lot of scrutiny, because they are taking from Canadian taxpayers' pockets to support Canadians. It is an acceptable level of scrutiny. No problem with that, and being accountable for that. That is our job as a responsible organization. But we can only adhere to what we know," she says. 

MacLaren says LOVE made an effort to fulfill all the requirements of the skills link application, and she believes the positive recommendation from staff is proof that it passed the test.

However, final decisions are at the discretion of the minister. It is considered uncommon for ministers to go against the advice of staff, but it is not rare. 

MacLaren says it is difficult and discouraging for a small organization to spend months on an application only to be turned down. 

"It felt like potentially there were a set of rules at play that we were unaware of. Because the rules we were aware of, we adhered to," she says. "So it felt like there had to be something happening that we didn't know or understand or hadn't been aware of." 

"What it feels like upon receiving the documents is that there isn't a possibility of success," MacLaren says. "Because if we did so well, and we're still denied, then we must not have even had a chance from the beginning."

On mobile? Look at the documents here.