Three hour wait, three days in a row: Massachusetts shelter hotline leaves some families desperate (WBUR)

A Nov. 22 WBUR article quoted Greater Boston Legal Services attorney Liz Alfred on the difficulties families face accessing the Massachusetts family shelter system. Alfred helped a mother—recently-evicted and a survivor of domestic violence—and her child find a room at a state-run shelter, and commented on the conditions that make the system challenging to navigate. An excerpt from the article is below.

Frustrated and feeling desperate, Paula turned to Greater Boston Legal Services. A staff attorney there, Liz Alfred, emailed her contacts at the state’s shelter program. Within an hour, Alfred said they found a place for Paula and her daughter.

Unlike the system for single adults who don’t have housing, which is primarily run by nonprofits, the family shelter system in Massachusetts is run by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). There are a few nonprofit family shelters, but most families with children receive services through the state. Experts say a state-run shelter system like this is highly unusual.

The phone line troubles Paula encountered have become the norm, Alfred said. During the pandemic, the state closed field offices and directed families to apply for shelter by phone. Program staff continue to instruct people to use the hotline.

“Pre-COVID, you could go into the office, and you could sit there all day,” Alfred said. “But at least if you were there with your suitcases and your kid, there is some way that DHCD understands that they need to deal with you.”

Read more at WBUR.

‘I’m at my wit’s end’: Welcome to the underbelly of the region’s housing crisis (The Boston Globe)

Attorneys Zoe Cronin of Greater Boston Legal Services and Rochelle Jones of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, both pictured above, were featured in a Nov. 12 Boston Globe article for their work representing people in housing court in the aftermath of COVID eviction moratoria expiring.

An excerpt of the article is below.

Criminal court proceedings where the defendant faces possible prison time guarantees the right to a defense lawyer, but there is no such safety net for housing court. This means that many tenants who can’t afford a lawyer are battling potential eviction by taking it upon themselves to duel with polished attorneys representing landlords.The tenants often struggle to navigate the complexities of housing law and courtroom procedure. Louis is one of the lucky ones. She has legal representation: Zoe Cronin from Greater Boston Legal Services.

Many tenants are not so fortunate.

As of the end of October, there were 15,556 residential eviction cases brought this year in Massachusetts for non-payment of rent. Those cases include 21,629 defendants, the vast, vast majority of whom are defending themselves without a hired attorney. (Nearly 97 percent are pro se.) By contrast, only about 12 percent of landlords who bring forward eviction cases do so without a lawyer to represent them, according to statistics from the Massachusetts Trial Court.

Volunteer lawyers help both pro se tenants and landlords craft motions or offer representation during a mediation session, and, in some cases they offer full representation. The “lawyer for a day” program sets up shop outside a bank of courtrooms on the fifth floor. Many tenants, said Rochelle Jones, the housing and appeals staff attorney for the Volunteer Lawyers Project, struggle to articulate and defend themselves, to explain to the court what is happening in their living situation.

“The legal system is complicated, it’s complex,” she said.

Read more in The Boston Globe.

MLRI class action lawsuit seeks to restore stolen SNAP food benefits (Various outlets)

CommonWealth Magazine, WWLP, and CBS News recently reported on a class action lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute against the Department of Transitional Assistance that would require the state to pay food benefit recipients back aid money stolen through “skimming.” “Skimming” is a technique by which criminals attach a device to a point-of-sale terminal, such as an ATM or a store’s card-swiping machine, to steal the household’s account number and PIN. MLRI attorneys Deborah Harris and Betsy Gwin (pictured above) were quoted in news coverage of the lawsuit.

Below are excerpts of the articles.

CommonWealth Magazine (Nov. 7):

“What should not happen is that somebody fills up their grocery cart at the supermarket, gets to the checkout line and discovers there are no benefits in the account and they can’t feed their family that month,” said Deborah Harris, a Massachusetts Law Reform Institute attorney who filed the suit. “That is not acceptable. Either the federal government or the states have to step up to the plate.” 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

WWLP (Nov. 8):

Plaintiffs allege that DTA declined to restore the stolen and spent amounts because the U.S. Department of Agriculture “has told states that USDA, which in most cases pays the full cost of SNAP benefits, will not cover the restoration costs,” the lawsuit reads. “Low-income families count on their SNAP benefits to put food on the table each month,” Betsy Gwin, a staff attorney at MLRI, said in a statement. “When criminals steal families’ SNAP, our federal and state governments must step up to restore the lost benefits.”

Read more at WWLP.

CBS News (Nov. 18):

The cases in Massachusetts may represent just a fraction of Americans who lose their benefits to theft, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month flagging it as a growing problem. About 41 million Americans currently rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP —the formal name of the food-stamp program — for food assistance. 

Skimming “is an extensive issue that extends across the country,” Gwin added. “The difference we see is the lack of federal protections for EBT users.”

Read more at CBS News.

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.

Advocacy groups urge legislature to revisit no-cost phone calls for prisoners and prison construction moratorium (Various outlets)

A coalition of more than 80 advocacy groups, including Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, called on the Massachusetts House and Senate to return to session and revisit legislation that would make phone calls free for prisoners as well as place a five year moratorium on the construction of new jails and prisons.

Below are excerpts from the news coverage.

The Eagle-Tribune (Oct. 25) and The Salem News (Oct. 31):

Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said offering free phone calls to prisoners is a “no brainer” that was approved with “broad” legislative support.

“It will remove outrageous charges that burden low-income families of people in prison,” she wrote. “It will help children, spouses and parents stay connected with incarcerated loved ones, and it will help people in prison prepare to succeed on release — all at a very low cost to the state.”

Read more from The Eagle-Tribune and The Salem News.

WWLP (Oct. 26):

“Keeping families connected is key to reducing recidivism, making sure transitions back in the community are smoother, and those things right there keep communities safer,” said Mark Martinez from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Read more from WWLP.