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519 appoints new head

From running city shelters to community centre

MEET THE NEW BOSS. Maura Lawless prepares to move from municipal government to the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Credit: Jenna Wakani

Maura Lawless is comparing the view from her current office on the sixth floor of Metro Hall to the one she’ll be facing as the new executive director of the 519 Church Street Community Centre.

“I will miss the view,” she says as the light reflects off Roy Thomson Hall. “But the Beer Store is very nice to look at. Seriously, Cawthra Square Park is lovely. And Church-Wellesley is a great place to hang out.”

Lawless, currently the manager of hostel operations and support services for the city of Toronto, will take over The 519 on Dec 12. She says she’s excited about the chance to work with so many volunteers.

“I’m really looking forward to the kind of community engagement work, the commitment that volunteers bring,” she says. “I think what matters is the process you undertake to hear from people who are interested.”

Lawless has an extensive background in homeless and poverty issues. She spent 11 years working at Toronto’s Fred Victor Centre, a multi-service organization for the homeless. In 2003 she took on her current position for the city.

Lawless says she’s been able to lead the process of making hostels and shelters safer and more welcoming.

“We’ve been able to move our hostels away from just providing ‘a hot and a cot,'” she says. “We’ve worked hard on improving trans access to the shelter system. We wanted to make sure our services are open to everybody.”

Lawless thinks her experience working with the poor and homeless will translate directly to many of the services The 519 provides.

“My learning environment has been working with people who are marginalized or homeless,” she says, “and of course there’s the social justice aspect.”

But Lawless admits she has a bit of a learning curve when it comes to queer-specific issues.

“By no stretch of the imagination am I a major expert,” she says. “Because it hasn’t been my primary focus I want to spend my first months talking to the staff and to people in the community.”

But Lawless says she’s excited that The 519’s mission statement now includes a specific reference to serving the queer community. That clause was added in October.

“I think it’s fantastic that it’s one of the primary focuses,” she says. “It provides the context to move forward. The 519 wants to really move away from reacting to issues and help set public discourse.”

Lawless says she wants The 519 to play a larger role in supporting young queer artists, in part by using the centre as a venue for performances. She says she also wants to expand the centre’s donor base and move away from a heavy reliance on the city.

“The amount of work it takes to apply for small amounts of money [from the city] is staggering,” she says. “The centre needs to diversify its funding base so it can respond to new and emerging needs.”

Lawless expects her new job to take up even more time than her current one, a situation she says will be hardest on the Labrador cross she and her same-sex partner recently took in.

“I imagine our puppy will miss us.”