Energy prices are skyrocketing. Here’s how you can get financial help this winter (WBUR)

A Nov. 3 WBUR article quoted Charlie Harak (pictured above), a senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, who lent his guidance on applying for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). An excerpt from the article is below.

Most fuel assistance in Massachusetts comes from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP (pronounced lie-heep). The name of the program is a bit of a misnomer, though, since you don’t actually have to be “low income” to get help.

LIHEAP money comes from the federal government but is distributed through designated community action groups and local nonprofits.

  • To qualify you need to make no more than 60% the state’s median income level, which in dollar terms, is $81,561 for a family of four and $42,411 for an individual.

The amount of assistance you get depends on your income and fuel source, said Charlie Harak, a Massachusetts-based attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “But in no category is it trivial money. So it’s worth everybody looking at.”

Read more from WBUR.

For labor trafficked immigrants, T-visas are a life-saving but flawed relief (GBH News)

Two legal aid attorneys—Caddie Nath-Folsom of the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts, a subsidiary of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, and Audrey Richardson of Greater Boston Legal Services—were quoted in an Oct. 24 GBH News article about barriers labor trafficked immigrants face to obtaining T-visas. These visas are a pathway to legal residency for survivors of severe trafficking who cooperate with an investigation into the trafficking.

Below are excerpts from the article.

Caddie Nath-Folsom, a staff attorney with the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts, says application forms have gotten much longer and the government doesn’t have the capacity to cope with the volume of paperwork.

“The biggest challenge survivors are having right now is the unbelievable delay and processing of these applications,” she said.

Beyond these barriers, many immigrants simply don’t know about the T-visa, or find out years after they were subjected to labor trafficking.

“It’s both that people don’t necessarily know about it, but it’s also that identifying cases as being appropriate for [T-visas] and having folks who would be able to take advantage of it come forward are difficult things,” said Audrey Richardson, managing attorney of the Greater Boston Legal Services’ Employment Law Unit, which works with survivors to secure visas.

Read more at GBH News.

Interview: SNAP benefit increase is helping those in need. Is it enough? (GBH News)

Patricia Baker (pictured above), a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath on Oct. 20 about the gaps that federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients still face, despite a recent increase in monthly benefits.

Below is an excerpt from the interview.

Rath: And the cost of living, of course, varies quite a bit between states. And as we know here in Massachusetts, it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Is that taken into consideration at all? And if not, is there a chance it could be?

Baker: Unfortunately, the costs of living around the country are not taken into consideration. With the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, every state applies the same rules for the most part. And not only is it more costly to live in Massachusetts, but the cost of food alone — we’re the second-highest cost of food right now in the nation for lots of reasons, including that we don’t produce as much food in the state and the costs of delivery of that food — all of which contributes to higher food costs for the commonwealth.

Read more of the interview at GBH News.

Blind and low-vision voters hail Massachusetts’ new statewide online voting option (GBH News)

This year, Massachusetts became the fourth state in the nation to enact a new electronic voting system for people with disabilities, as a provision of the VOTES Act passed in June. This milestone stems from a 2020 lawsuit filed by the Disability Law Center, as reported by GBH News in an Oct. 28 article.

An excerpt from the article is below.

In 2020, the Disability Law Center partnered with the Bay State Council of the Blind and the Boston Center for Independent Living to sue the state over lack of accommodations made for disabled people to vote safely and securely during the pandemic. Secretary of State Bill Galvin settled the lawsuit right before the election to allow disabled voters to vote electronically.

But during the 2020 election, voters with disabilities who chose the electronic method still needed a printer and had to physically sign the ballot. Advocates pushed for the option to last beyond that single year and worked with the secretary of state’s office to make it even more accessible.

Read more from GBH News.

SCCLS assists tenants facing eviction from New Bedford building (The New Bedford Light and South Coast Today)

South Coastal Counties Legal Services (SCCLS), along with other local agencies and nonprofits, has provided legal information and assistance to New Bedford tenants facing eviction by their apartment complex’s new owner and given little time to move. 189-193 Elm Street’s new owner, TI Partners, sent letters to dozens of tenants giving them one month to leave. The developer plans to renovate the property and increase rents for the units.

Below are excerpts from the news coverage.

The New Bedford Light (Oct. 24):

At South Coastal Counties Legal Services, the largest category of cases are ones where a landlord has increased the rent and the tenant can’t pay. Gavin Bates, the managing attorney for the organization’s New Bedford office, will be at Tuesday’s meeting. He said Terra Incognita appears to be “moving very aggressively” with the evictions.

“A whole building, 24 units at once — not normal,” he said. “Normally, they ease people out, a little more gently, and over a period of time.”

Bates said he hopes his organization can help tenants delay their evictions while they look for other arrangements. If a landlord has not resolved issues with an apartment or they didn’t file their paperwork correctly, that could push back an eviction, Bates said. A sympathetic judge could also provide extra time.

Read more in The New Bedford Light.

South Coast Today (Oct. 26):

Gavin Bates, the managing attorney for South Coastal Counties Legal Services‘ New Bedford Office, said there were options and that it would be possible that tenants would not have to leave just yet. 

“The 30-day notice, while that is technically correct, that is not how fast the courts move,” he said. “It’s terrifying, however, there are a lot of options available for folk if they stop and assess.”

Read more in South Coast Today.

South Coast Today (Oct. 31):

Regarding the Elm Street complex, Mayor Jon Mitchell said that though the city cannot intervene in a lease dispute, the reports he read concern him.

“The particular case of the Elm Street residents, based on what has been reported, I believe they were not given fair notice of the landlord’s intentions,” he said. “We strongly urge the tenants to reach out to South Coastal Counties Legal Services for assistance. Regardless of the legal merits of the case, I believe that landlords have a moral obligation to afford departing tenants a reasonable opportunity to seek new housing.”

Read more in South Coast Today.

State launches investigation into Boston Public Schools transportation, special education (Various outlets)

The state of Massachusetts has launched an investigation into whether Boston Public Schools is violating the educational rights of students with disabilities, following a complaint filed on Oct. 14 by Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Greater Boston Legal Services, and several other organizations on behalf of the families of six students. The complaint called on BPS to address the impact of its transportation problems on students with disabilities, students of color and those who speak other languages.

Below are excerpts from the news coverage.

The Boston Globe (Oct. 25):

Jakira Rogers, who leads the racial equity and access program at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said she and other group representatives met Monday with Skipper and district administrators from BPS’s special education and transportation office.

“The complaint was a follow-up, really after the long systemic issue has really blown up and families are struggling with transportation,” Rogers said, emphasizing the unreliability creates barriers to special education support and services and hinders parents’ ability to maintain employment.“Transportation is just not about school buses, it’s about access to education, and access to a free and appropriate education. That’s what all students deserve, and that’s what we will continue to fight for until we get there.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

WCVB (Oct. 25):

Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Advocates for Children wrote in their complaint that the transportation system is continuing to fail students and their families.

“The long-standing non-compliance with DESE’s monitoring and failure to improve the transportation system continues to have widespread negative impacts on Boston students and families,” advocates wrote in the complaint. “This school year, students are not receiving appropriate or consistent transportation services. Parents are being forced to pick up and drop off their children, experiencing weeks without consistent transportation for their children. Students with disabilities, who may require door-to-door transportation, bus monitors, or other accommodations, are not receiving these special education services to address their specific needs. Buses are failing to pick students up on time, to drop them off at school on time, and to get them home on time. Parents are not receiving prompt, accurate notifications of issues with transportation services. Some families are receiving last-minute notice of changes to transportation services, not receiving notifications at all, or are not receiving any communications in the language of the home.”

Read more from WCVB.

Boston.com (Nov. 10):

Special education students, and especially those who are not white, are disproportionately impacted by the transportation system’s failures, said Jakira Rogers, a program lead at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. The organization, along with Greater Boston Legal Services, filed the aforementioned complaint with state officials. 

“Those in power… must address the exclusion of Black and Latinx students within Boston Public Schools. When I say ‘exclusion,’ I’m referring to the multiple ways in which Black and Latinx students with disabilities are pushed out of schools and away from their education,” Rogers said. “It’s not a secret who inadequate transportation disproportionately impacts.”

The problems are larger than just buses being late, Rogers said. When students miss school time because of transportation issues, they are being denied their legal right to a free public education, and some special education students are missing hours of learning time on a regular basis, she added. 

Read more from Boston.com.

Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission announces four new members and release of report on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic

BOSTON, October 26, 2022 — The Supreme Judicial Court today announced the appointments of four new members to the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the recent release of the Commission’s report on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, “Creating a More Equitable System: Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, was released in September of 2022. The report compiles feedback from a range of access to justice stakeholders and reflects on lessons learned during the pandemic and opportunities to take advantage of Trial Court adaptations and innovations to improve access to justice for all court users.

First established by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2005, the Access to Justice Commission seeks to improve access to justice for people who are unable to afford an attorney for essential civil legal needs, such as cases involving housing, consumer debt, and family law.

“Each of these new Commissioners joins us with extensive relevant experience and will bring insight and knowledge essential to the Commission’s ongoing efforts to ensure equal access to justice,” said Supreme Judicial Court Justice Serge Georges, Jr., and Marijane Benner Browne, Co-Chairs of the Access to Justice Commission. “We are also pleased to share the Commission’s report and look forward to working collaboratively with stakeholders on moving the report’s recommendations forward.”

The new Access to Justice Commission members are:

  • Justine A. Dunlap is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law where she teaches courses on access to justice, family law and practice, and civil procedure. Her publications have focused on domestic violence, juvenile law, mental health law, and school teaching, including contemplative learning practices. Professor Dunlap began her legal career at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and later worked at the District of Columbia Superior Court as a staff attorney and Director of the Counsel for Child Abuse and Neglect, a branch of the Superior Court’s Family Division.
  • Colin Harnsgate is a Senior Staff Attorney in the Bankruptcy and Consumer Units at the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP). His first two years of law practice were with AmeriCorps Legal Advocates of Massachusetts, where he served at Rosie’s Place and Greater Boston Legal Services. Attorney Harnsgate serves as an Adjunct Clinical Instructor of the Consumer Debt Practicum at Boston University School of Law. He is also a Co-Chair of the Commission’s Consumer Debt Committee.
  • Danielle Johnson is the Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Stability in Boston. Previously, Attorney Johnson was the Managing Attorney of the Elder, Health and Disability Unit, and was a staff attorney in the Housing Unit, at Greater Boston Legal Services. She also worked in private practice handling criminal matters. Attorney Johnson is a published author in the Boston Bar Journal and the Boston Globe where she has written about the need for diversity in the legal community. Attorney Johnson is an Adjunct Professor at Suffolk Law School where she teaches an Access to Justice Seminar. She is also a member of both the Commission’s Racial Equity and Justice Committee and its Housing Committee.
  • Lisa Owens is the Executive Director of the Hyams Foundation, which funds organizations and networks working toward racial and economic justice in Greater Boston and Massachusetts. Ms. Owens brings over 25 years of experience building local grassroots organizations and supporting national movements.  She previously served as the Executive Director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a prominent housing justice group that is nationally recognized for organizing communities against displacement and building collective power for systemic change. Ms. Owens has taught courses on community organizing and nonprofit management in local universities and has served on the boards of many Boston-based and national organizations committed to fighting for social, racial, and economic justice.

Among other activities, the Access to Justice Commission coordinates with civil legal aid organizations to support their activities and develop new initiatives to address unmet needs. The Commission also works to increase the number of attorneys able to provide pro bono or limited assistance civil legal services and coordinates with the court system on initiatives that assist individuals to better understand and navigate civil legal proceedings. The Commission’s members include representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service organizations, bar associations, law schools, businesses, and other stakeholders in the access to justice community.

More information about the Commission and its work is available on the Commission’s website.

CLA op-ed: The difference an advocate makes in schools (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Community Legal Aid Education Staff Attorney Jaz Williams (pictured above) penned a guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about her experience working in schools first as a former special education teacher, and now in the role of an advocate. An excerpt is below.

“As much as I love my job, I remain aware that it should not take a legal advocate coming into the school to ensure that it provides adequate educational services to students. Unfortunately, the education arena remains one of the most glaring examples of wealth inequity and disparities families face in this country. By making education law a priority for our organization, Community Legal Aid leads the effort in our region to help families and students vindicate their educational rights.

Community Legal Aid’s core mission is ensuring equal justice for all, including, at the school level, for children as young as three, and there is always more work to be done. Every time I leave a successful meeting, or close a case with a good outcome for a child, I think of the hundreds of other families who are not getting the help and support that Community Legal Aid offers. Where children live and what school they attend can shape their entire future. This is especially true if a family is not receiving the proper tools and supports a child needs to be successful in school. To that end, if you or someone you know is facing educational barriers, contact our education team at Community Legal Aid.”

Read more in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Consolidation of senior care homes is uprooting hundreds across Massachusetts (The Boston Globe)

The Northeast Justice Center, a subsidiary of Northeast Legal Aid, and Greater Boston Legal Services senior attorney Betsey Crimmins (pictured above) were mentioned in an Oct. 9 Boston Globe article for their efforts to assist residents of long-term care homes amid a wave of closures and consolidations. An excerpt of the article is below.

Hundreds of older folks, many with disabilities, are being uprooted from long-term care homes across Massachusetts this fall in the wake of a brutal pandemic that claimed the lives of nearly 6,900 senior care residents and destabilized an already fragile sector.

Landmark was initially slated to close on Oct. 5. Its remaining residents got a reprieve after officials from the Boston Center for Independent Living and the Northeast Justice Center urged state elder affairs officials to press Landmark’s management to hold off on evictions.

Greater Boston Legal Services also threatened to sue Landmark if it didn’t give residents more time to find housing. “These are vulnerable people who had no recourse,” said the group’s senior attorney Betsey Crimmins.

Read more in The Boston Globe.

With aid drying up, advocates fear wave of evictions (The Boston Globe)

The Boston Globe quoted Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Andrea Park (pictured above) in an Oct. 12 article examining the impact of waning COVID-era relief funds and legal protections for tenants. New rental assistance requirements and fewer available funds have led to an uptick in eviction filings. Below is an excerpt from the article.

The most drastic change to rent relief is the one Bertelson faced: the requirement tenants receive a Notice To Quit.

Legally, notices are not enough to boot tenants from their homes, said Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Yet most are threaded with strong legalistic language that threatens eviction. As a result, she added, some tenants leave their apartments in fear, rather than staying put and fighting.

Park said the state failed to consider how requiring the notice could trigger other problems, such as the impact on tenants’ credit scores and their ability to secure housing in the future.

“There’s this perception that it’s just a letter,” she added. “But that’s underselling the power of the NTQ.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.