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MetroWest Legal Services: Fighting for Equal Justice for Over 40 Years

By John Carroll

The service area of MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) encompasses the soon-to-be-city of Framingham (town residents voted to transition to city status as of Jan. 1, 2018) and 44 surrounding towns west of Boston. Despite a staff of just 22—including 15 full-time attorneys, the organization assists over 2,500 low-income people a year in resolving non-criminal legal matters related to basic but essential needs like housing, health care, protection from domestic abuse, and child support. Needless to say, the MWLS office is usually a pretty busy place.

Nonetheless, Tuesday, August 22 was more hectic than usual. By noon that day, three homeless families turned up at MWLS after being told they did not qualify for state-run Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter. Two of the families weren’t even allowed to fill out an application—they were simply turned away after cursory interviews in which they attempted to briefly explain the complex circumstances of their homelessness. These three families brought the total number of homeless families seeking MWLS’s help getting emergency shelter over 10-day period to six.

“As I heard these stories, one was worse than the next,” wrote MWLS Executive Director Elizabeth “Betsy” Soulé in a recent MWLS newsletter. A mother and child sleeping in their car at a local park. A mother and her severely autistic child who fled domestic violence in another country were made to leave the apartment of the mother’s sister, lest the sister be evicted. A disabled veteran, his recently unemployed wife, teenage son, service dog and aging cat who had been sleeping in their car for two months. The reasons they were turned away from emergency shelter were senseless. The mother and child sleeping at the park, for example, were denied because, lacking a camera or a phone with a camera, they couldn’t produce photographic evidence that they were sleeping in their car.

Fortunately, after a day and a half of meetings and negotiations with the legal department of the state agency that administers emergency shelter, MWLS saw to it that these families received the services they needed. Even better, in the interim, a generous MWLS donor provided funds to rent hotel rooms for the stranded families.

Aside from housing, MWLS includes units dedicated to elder issues, special education, domestic violence, immigration, victims of crime, worker related issues, and others, as well as an innovative medical-legal partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Framingham.

MWLS was founded in 1976 as an arm of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council. Since then, it has merged through several iterations into the multi-service legal office that it is today. Soulé’s tenure at MWLS stretches nearly 30 years to 1988, when she joined the organization as a supervising attorney. She has served as executive director since 2008, overseeing MWLS’s vast service area, which encompasses 25-30 House districts and 10 Senatorial districts, with political aplomb. Soulé knows all of the area’s elected officials, and they know her. They also know that she serves their mutual constituents very well. With more than 40,000 people living in poverty in the MWLS service area, Soulé does her best to see that all eligible citizens are served well, but she knows the blanket is too small for the bed. As she lamented in a local newspaper profile on the occasion of the MWLS’s 40th anniversary last year, “there are just way more people who need our help than we can reach because of a lack of resources.

Despite the daily struggle to meet the needs of as many clients as possible, MWLS staff are deeply committed to working to remove barriers to justice for low-income people west of Boston.

“Nobody goes into this for the money,” Soulé told the Boston Globe last year. “They’re doing it because it’s important and they’re committed to the mission. It’s tough work. It’s intense work, but the benefits literally mean the difference between life and death sometimes.”

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John Carroll is 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.

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 Aid Holds the Key to Preventing Evictions

By Sarah Blair

Matthew Desmond is a very smart man. An associate professor and former Junior Fellow at Harvard, Desmond holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and has published four books, the most recent of which, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was released on March 1. In September, Desmond was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant to pursue research on evictions around the world.

After spending over a year living amidst Milwaukee’s poor, Desmond is something of an expert on eviction. He is well aware of the disproportionate impact it has on women and communities of color. He knows that past eviction correlates strongly with material hardship and depression, and that housing instability can harm a child’s ability to succeed in school. He also understands that having access to an attorney is perhaps the most powerful tool available to keep families faced with evictions in their homes.

But the sad reality is that if these families had the money to hire an attorney, they would probably not be facing eviction in the first place. Perhaps the family fell behind on rent because of an unexpected illness or layoff. Perhaps it is facing discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, or physical ability, or retaliation after reporting unsafe living conditions. Regardless of the legitimacy of their claims, these unrepresented families often stand little chance when facing their landlords’ trained attorneys in court.

While indigent defendants in serious criminal cases have a constitutional right to an attorney, individuals facing life-altering civil legal problems—such as the threat of homelessness—do not. Civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts and throughout the country do their best to provide low-income litigants, including tenants facing eviction, with the critical advice and representation they need to achieve justice.  A 2012 eviction study conducted by the Boston Bar Association in Quincy, Massachusetts, found that two-thirds of tenants who received full representation were able to avoid eviction; meanwhile, only one-third of tenants who were offered limited assistance were able to remain in their homes.

Unfortunately, over half of eligible clients who seek civil legal aid for housing cases in Massachusetts are turned away due to lack of funding. This “justice gap” is unacceptable—particularly considering that investing in civil legal aid actually saves the state money in the long run. In Massachusetts, it is estimated that legal aid eviction assistance saved the Commonwealth over seven million dollars in averted shelter costs in FY15 alone.

Housing instability is one of the most pervasive problems facing the urban poor, and civil legal aid is a proactive, cost-effective solution to the social and economic problems that it causes. As Desmond eloquently puts it, “There are moral costs we incur as a society when our citizens are denied equal protection under the law and wrongfully thrown from their homes by court order.” With all the evidence in place, it shouldn’t take a genius to support increased funding for civil legal aid.

Sarah Blair is Executive Assistant at the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and Legislative Campaign Assistant at the Equal Justice Coalition.