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Community Legal Aid: Fighting Poverty and Working for Justice for Over 50 Years

By John Carroll

When she sought help from Community Legal Aid (CLA), Brittany was a single, working mother from Central Massachusetts who put her children to bed each night on the floors of the homes of her family and friends. With no stable living arrangements and very little money, she had lost her sense of safety and security.

Prior to becoming homeless, Brittany (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her two young sons had been living in a mold-infested apartment with heat that didn’t go above 52 degrees. After she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she fell behind on the rent because she was unable to work. Her landlord took her to court and the family was forced to pack up and leave. Unable to find suitable housing, Brittany applied for emergency shelter but was denied.

CLA helped put Brittany and her children back on the road to stability and independence. Because she had fallen behind on her rent for legitimate medical reasons, her CLA attorney successfully argued that the state had wrongfully denied the emergency shelter for which she was eligible. Soon she and her children were safely placed in shelter and began the search for a permanent home without worrying where they’d wind up sleeping every night. Meanwhile, Brittany’s son was worried that he would have to change schools because their shelter was in a different school district. A CLA education attorney stepped in and worked with both towns to ensure Brittany’s son could continue to attend the school that he loved.

Helping low-income families and individuals escape homelessness is just one way CLA serves as a lifeline for thousands of clients each year. CLA provides legal assistance to eligible people in the most basic areas of need: homelessness prevention, employment, education, elder law, immigration, and family law, mostly for domestic violence survivors. CLA’s work is augmented by a panel of approximately 175 private attorneys who annually donate more than 2,700 hours of legal services to the organization.

With a service area that stretches from Worcester to Massachusetts’ western border, CLA serves all of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. It has full-service offices in Worcester, Northampton, Pittsfield and Springfield, along with satellite offices in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Holyoke, North Adams, Southbridge and Milford. No other legal services program in Massachusetts serves such a broad swath of the state.

In addition to covering the largest geographical area of Massachusetts’ regional legal aid programs, CLA’s roots are among the oldest in the state. Most civil legal aid programs trace their birth to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other anti-poverty programs. Having been established in 1951 as the Legal Aid Society of Worcester by a group of attorneys from the Worcester County Bar Association, CLA’s origins precede even those programs.

As it has over the last six-plus decades, CLA will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents of Central and Western Massachusetts, ensuring they have access to justice and the dignity that all people deserve, regardless of their ability to pay for legal help.

When her case was resolved, Brittany declared her attorney “a miracle worker.”

“You work so hard,” she said, “and you have gotten my family so far with your kindness alone.”

At CLA, it’s all in a day’s work.

***

John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Prepare To Dig In To Preserve Civil Legal Aid

By Lonnie Powers

We don’t quite know what to expect from the federal government in the weeks and months ahead in terms of support for civil legal aid. For decades, support for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nonprofit that administers federal funding to legal aid programs across the country, has been seen as a smart investment by members of both parties.

In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, a centerpiece of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty agenda. The law aimed to eliminate poverty by giving poor people access to educational and vocational programs, loans, and other services that would help them achieve greater financial security. It quickly became clear that free legal advice or representation in non-criminal legal matters like child support and custody disputes; home foreclosure or eviction; wrongful termination from a job, and accessing veterans’ services provided stability that was just as vital to fighting poverty as educational and financial supports. Civil legal aid became a key part of the effort to fight poverty in America.

Like Johnson before him, President Richard M. Nixon understood the necessity of civil legal aid for people struggling to escape poverty. In his proposal to create the LSC, which was passed by Congress in 1974, Nixon called local civil legal aid offices the places where “the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help.” He added, “Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check—each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”

Numerous programs have since demonstrated the wisdom of this approach. Civil legal services can help poor people stay in their homes, prevent sudden evictions by allowing tenants to negotiate exits from housing, and ensure smooth transitions to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed that poor people fighting eviction notices in housing court in Quincy, Massachusetts fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco, and San Mateo County, California.

Legal advocacy in the form of large, class-action lawsuits to change laws and governmental policies that adversely ― and overwhelmingly ― affect poor people, has also been effective in ensuring access to justice regardless of income. In 1970, legal aid attorneys successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Goldberg v. Kelly that state welfare departments cannot terminate benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing. In 1973, California Rural Legal Assistance successfully sued to stop large agricultural operators from requiring migrant farm workers to use short-handled hoes while working in fields. (The short-handled hoes forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time; field managers required their use because if they saw workers standing up, then they knew that they were resting and not working. After these hoes were banned, back injuries among farm workers dropped by more than 30 percent.) More recently, a federal lawsuit by Greater Boston Legal Services resulted in changes in policy by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance which had improperly denied benefits to people living with disabilities.

Despite these clear successes, state and federal funding for civil legal aid is well below what is needed ― studies show that more than 63 million Americans qualify for LSC-funded civil legal assistance, yet about 80 percent of the serious legal needs of low-income Americans go unmet. Civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly in order to maintain progress. President Obama, a strong supporter of civil legal aid, secured modest funding increases during his tenure (though some were rolled back). He also expanded access to legal aid services through initiatives like the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR). The Roundtable has made available more grant funding for legal aid, conducted new research, and provided education to federal agency staff about how civil legal aid advances federal priorities, among other activities. But much more is needed, in terms of resources and political will, if we are truly serious about helping low-income Americans establish and maintain independent, financially secure lives.

Any attempts to weaken or dismantle federal civil legal aid must be met with principled advocacy and resistance by the legal community, social justice activists, and civil rights organizations. Civil legal aid is a powerful ― and much needed ― tool that helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability so they can create a better future for themselves, their families, and our communities.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Civil Legal Aid Can Help Veterans Struggling With Homelessness

By Lonnie Powers

On any given night in the U.S., close to 39,500 military veterans are homeless. Nearly 1,000 of them are in Massachusetts.

These are men and women who have put their lives on the line in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the jungles of Vietnam. They fought in the Korean War, Panama, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf. And yet, after all they endured in service to our country, they are sleeping in shelters, and living on the streets or in homeless encampments.

The reasons for their homelessness are complex. There are the general stressors that contribute to homelessness such as a shortage of affordable housing and limited opportunities to earn a living wage, coupled with the fact that military training and occupations don’t always translate well to the civilian workforce. Those issues are compounded by mental health problems that result from, or were exacerbated by, their service and the absence of social support networks. Child support arrears have also been identified as a leading cause of homelessness among veterans.

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in 2010 President Barack Obama launched an initiative aimed at ending veteran homelessness by 2015. As part of that, cities across the country, including a handful in Massachusetts, joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. And while the initiative’s ultimate goal has yet to be achieved, homelessness among veterans has fallen nationally by 47 percent in the last six years, while unsheltered homelessness has been reduced by 56 percent. Locally, Lynn became the first Massachusetts city to end veterans’ homelessness earlier this year. Boston has succeeded in housing all but just a small number of veterans who are homeless as of the beginning of this year.

Civil legal aid—free legal assistance or representation for low-income individuals facing non-criminal legal issues—has been an integral part of ensuring our veterans have safe, stable housing. The Department of Justice has noted that four of the most pressing unmet needs of homeless veterans involve legal assistance: preventing eviction/foreclosure, child support issues, outstanding warrants/fines, and restoration of a driver’s license. Recognizing the need, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made grant funding available to legal aid organizations to assist veterans as part of President Obama’s initiative.

In addition to working to get veterans into permanent housing, civil legal aid is often an effective intervention for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless—an estimated 1.4 million veterans nationwide. For example, several years ago, Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, now known as Community Legal Aid (CLA) helped Iraq War veteran Michael Damon and his family avoid foreclosure on their Uxbridge home. The family fell into financial hardship when war-related injuries left Damon disabled and he was ineligible to receive workers’ compensation. His injuries made him unable to care for his two children, which prevented his wife Lisa from working full-time. It wasn’t long before they received a foreclosure notice. Damon’s legal aid attorney filed suit on the family’s behalf against Countrywide Home Loans and Deutsche Bank. Their case was ultimately settled after their attorney was able to assist the Damons in repurchasing their home with a more affordable mortgage.

In another instance, MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) succeeded in helping a 17-year Air Force veteran keep a roof over her head after a layoff and a stretch of unemployment brought her close to financial ruin. An MWLS attorney helped the veteran file for bankruptcy and represented her at the hearing, which resulted in the discharge of a large credit card debt—and a more stable financial future.

The theme of Veterans Day this year is “Courage-Honoring All Who Served.” As we honor and thank those who have served in our military, we must remember that for far too many veterans, the perils of service do not end with discharge from the military. If we truly want to honor all of our military veterans, we must ensure that the most vulnerable among them have the services and support they need and deserve to thrive as civilians.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Civil Legal Assistance is a Potent Anti-poverty Tool

By Lonnie Powers

Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s personal choice to lead the War on Poverty, was once asked which of the anti-poverty programs he thought was the most important. “My favorite is Head Start because it was my idea,” he answered. “But I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited.”

Legal services, also known as civil legal aid, has indeed been a potent anti-poverty tool in two ways. First, through individual case work that enables poor people to gain access to the rights and benefits from state and federal service agencies, health care providers and schools to which they are entitled. Second, through large, class-action lawsuits and advocacy efforts that change laws and governmental policies that adversely — and overwhelmingly — affect poor people.

With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, we have been treated to numerous assessments of the effectiveness of Johnson’s (and Shriver’s) program these past 12 months. It is indisputable both that tremendous progress has been made, but also that much work remains.

To continue progress, civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly.

A look at how civil legal aid assists those struggling with homelessness and/or unstable housing, as well as those who are victims of intimate partner violence is instructive.

Numerous programs around the country demonstrate that civil legal services can help poor people keep their housing, or negotiate exits from housing that allow them to have more control over the process, and ensure a smooth transition to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed conclusively that poor people in housing court in Quincy, Mass. to fight eviction notices fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco and San Mateo County in California.

Meanwhile, a landmark 2003 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy showed that legal services is one of the most effective ways to help women living in poverty escape intimate partner violence. Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Census Research Data Center, were intrigued by a U.S. Department of Justice report noting that rates of domestic violence had significantly declined during the 1990s. They analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey and the U.S. Census to tease out the reasons for the decline. Their conclusion? Access to civil legal services ensured delivery of protective orders; assistance with child custody and support; and divorce and property distribution that victims needed to begin rebuilding their lives. Civil legal assistance was also critical for resolution of domestic violence-related legal disputes around immigration, housing and public benefits.

While services provided by emergency shelters, counselors, and hotlines are vital in the short-term, Farmer and Tiefenthaler wrote, services provided by civil legal aid “appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” (It is also interesting to note that between 1994 and 2000, the period during which incidents of domestic violence declined, the availability of civil legal services for victims of domestic violence increased 245 percent (from 336 such programs to 1,441).

Despite these clear successes, many people do not understand what civil legal aid is, and surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for legal assistance is well below what it needs to be.

This fall, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released Investing in Justice, a report showing that over 60 percent of those eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts who seek services are turned away due to lack of resources. The Task Force proposed that the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid be increased by $30 million over the next three years to begin to address the unmet need. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

The irony, of course, is that the civil legal aid yields a measurable — and significant — return on investment. Looking at work solely related to housing, public benefits and domestic violence, three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

This summer, Philadelphia resident Tianna Gaines-Turner became the first person actually living in poverty to testify before Congressman Paul Ryan’s Congressional hearings on the War on Poverty. In a strong and moving testament to the need for increased state and federal funding to end poverty, Gaines-Turner said, “People living in poverty―those who were born into it, and those who are down on their luck — want to get out of poverty. We want to create our own safety nets, so we never have to depend on government assistance again.”

Civil legal aid is a powerful tool that helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability from which they can create a better future for themselves, their families and our communities.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.