The offices of Centro Legal were eerily quiet, the only sign of doom being the stack of cardboard boxes behind the counter.
Perhaps the boxes held the files of someone stuck between countries, the paperwork revealing attempts to gain citizenship and find the life that had always been dreamed about. Or maybe they held the documents of a family fighting foreclosure, or the protection order lawyers here helped a woman get to escape an abusive husband.
There were no clients around. Some had already been referred to other programs, other lawyers. Some, no doubt, had simply given up.
Monday will be the last day for Centro Legal, a St. Paul nonprofit that has provided low-cost legal services to Minnesota's Hispanic community since 1981. The agency is in debt and out of resources, hit by a "perfect storm" of circumstances, not the least of which is a teetering economy that is hampering or threatening pretty much every nonprofit in the state.
Linda Tacke sounded weary and sad. A management transition specialist, Tacke was hired as interim director in December to see if Centro could be saved.
"I think I'd like to blame it on the economy," Tacke said. When she was hired, "I looked at everything financial people look at, and it was real compromised at that point. It is a victim of the perfect storm nonprofits are in. Foundations were unable to give because they were focusing on basic needs. It's hard to focus on immigrant needs when your focus is on food and shelter. In a different economy, we might have made it."
But Tacke, who took over after former Executive Director Gloria Contreras Edin quit in November, said the agency was spending money when it was promised, not delivered. Borrowing on promises that were not always fulfilled, finances spiraled out of control. She says Centro will not meet short-term loan and lease obligations. Public records show that going back to 2007, the agency had less than a month of reserves on hand.
Edin said she was saddened that dedicated employees were out of work. "Centro Legal had a great history," she said. "Sometimes nonprofits have a life cycle. That doesn't mean the work won't continue."
Kate Barr, executive director the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, said that "when you see a nonprofit say they are having financial troubles because of the economy, in almost every case the problems have been going on for a while.
"You go back several years and Centro Legal has almost always run deficits. I sympathize that when you have people with needs at your door, the temptation is to spend every penny, or more."
Tacke has worked in nonprofits for decades, and says "this is the highest-quality staff I've ever seen." Even so, lawyers there started with salaries in the mid-$30,000s.
Monday, nine people will lose their jobs, that's certain. What's uncertain is exactly how many clients will fall through the cracks, unable to renew documents to work here, unable to turn around a foreclosure.
Almost 2,000 Latino immigrants got legal assistance last year, 34 families with minor children obtained housing, 335 people reunited with their families and 180 domestic abuse victims got help.
Attorneys who have clients in current immigration cases will continue to represent them, without being paid.
Bruce Nestor, an immigration attorney, called Centro's closing "a tremendous loss." He said there are other resources for immigration help, but he's worried that those needing family or civil legal help will suffer.
Rachel Bengston, an immigration attorney who will lose her job, sent an e-mail describing her feelings:
"Since 2006, the political climate toward immigrants has been hostile, making funding more difficult, but at the same time, demand for our services has only increased," she wrote. Bengston added, "Perhaps most disappointing is that when Centro Legal reached out to the community several months ago to help stave off this crisis, almost everyone we approached shrugged us off as a lost cause."
"So long, Centro Legal," she wrote. "You are loved, and you will be missed."
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702