People on food assistance increasingly turn to grocery delivery. But not without a price tag. (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the Boston Globe on July 12 highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of SNAP-covered grocery delivery services in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s Pat Baker is quoted. 

More and more food assistance recipients are turning to online grocery ordering, expanding on a shopping trend that has exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while the services add convenience for households where people sometimes work multiple jobs and care for relatives, they can also add significant costs to food budgets for families already struggling to make ends meet.

Online grocery ordering, which encompasses both delivery and pick-up, became available to food stamp recipients in Massachusetts in 2020, during the pandemic. And it’s taken off ever since, seeing a more than 820 percent jump in use by food assistance participants from 2020 to 2023, according to the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance.

Last year, food stamp recipients placed more than 4 million online grocery orders, the department said. That’s nowhere near the number of in-person transactions, which topped nearly 93 million last year, but it has become a useful, if not costly, alternative for some users of the government’s benefit for low-income shoppers, known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Participants and observers of the program say the convenience of grocery delivery can be crucial for busy families. But some warn that the fees charged by delivery services can be burdensome for some shoppers.

Read more at the Boston Globe.

Here’s a way to prevent foreclosures (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the Boston Globe on July 12 discussing an emerging pilot foreclosure mediation program with the goal being to help homeowners stay in the homes they have. Massachusetts Law Reform Insitute’s Andrea Park is quoted. 

Amid a statewide housing crisis with the shelter system at capacity, it is important to help homeowners stay in the homes they have.

Foreclosures have been rising since COVID-era homeowner protections expired. There were 5,340 foreclosure petitions — the first public, legal step in the foreclosure process — filed last year, according to the Division of Banks, a figure approaching pre-pandemic levels. Foreclosure mediation — where a homeowner and lender meet face-to-face with a mediator and discuss how to address a default — is a process that could stem the tide.

Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., have foreclosure mediation, according to the National Consumer Law Center, including every other New England state except New Hampshire. It is time for Massachusetts to join them.

The Massachusetts Senate included an amendment in its housing bond bill creating a five-community pilot foreclosure mediation program. The House should agree and, if successful, the pilot should be expanded into a statewide program all lenders are required to participate in.

Bankers raise legitimate concerns about whether mediation is necessary, given requirements already in place in Massachusetts, and about associated costs and delays. A pilot program can collect data to answer these questions.

Read more at the Boston Globe.

Prison Reform’s Shell Game (Boston Review)

Below is an excerpt from an article published in the Boston Review on July 10. The article by Bonnie Tenneriello discusses the steps Massachusetts has taken to reduce incarceration. Bonnie discusses efforts implemented as a result of Massachusetts’s 2018 prison reform law. Although the reforms are insufficient, they reflect growing awareness around imprisonment.

I first saw Davongie Stone last year through a small window in a very solid cell door. Representing Prisoners’ Legal Services, where I work as an attorney, I was touring a unit in Massachusetts’s maximum-security prison as a member of an oversight committee created by a 2018 criminal justice reform law. After years of grassroots pressure, the state legislature had passed measures intended to limit the use of solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations Special Rapporteur has said can amount to torture.

We were there to observe the transformation of what had previously been called the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU), one of the many euphemisms Massachusetts has employed for solitary confinement. The unit was now known as a Behavioral Assessment Unit (BAU), part of a revamp that officials like to say has ended solitary in the state’s prison system. An even older defunct name for solitary—Special Management Unit—was still stenciled on the doors.

Stone is a tall, young Black man with long dreadlocks and a serious demeanor. He recalls being sent to the unit because he had refused to live with a cellmate. Suffering from severe PTSD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, he was overwhelmed by the idea of being locked in a cell with someone else nearly all day. He had come into the system six years before we met, at twenty years old, with all the things that funnel people into incarceration—childhood abuse, entry into foster care and then the juvenile justice system, and brown skin. When he was twelve, a psychological evaluator described him as “a young man who has experienced a debilitating degree of trauma and uncertainty in his environment” and noted among his strengths, “he is intelligent, is genuinely interested in others, and strives to remain hopeful about his future.” He landed in prison for a violent offense at twenty-one.

Read more at the Boston Review.

Wheelchair users look to House for relief (Lowell Sun)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the Lowell Sun on July 4 that reveals the timeline of disability advocate efforts to establish greater wheelchair repair protections in Massachusetts. Disability Law Center’s Executive Director Barbara L’Italien and Rick Glassman are quoted.

BOSTON — Leyla Connolly’s battery-powered wheelchair has been broken for over a year. As she waits for it to be fixed, she is consigned to her Dorchester apartment, where she feels trapped without a safe way to leave to get groceries, go to doctor’s appointments or visit the nearby park.

“My whole life has been on standstill for a year,” Connolly said.

The Senate has twice passed a bill (S 2541) to expand wheelchair warranty protections and require faster repairs and replacements. The House left the bill untouched last session and this session representatives have not taken action, with formal meetings set to end July 31.

Rep. John Lawn, the House chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, held a closed-door negotiation meeting in April with disability rights advocates and wheelchair repair companies, trying to come up with compromise language to put before the House, according to a handful of advocates familiar with the conversations.

“I’ve appreciated the engagement of the committee in working to understand and facilitate conversations,” said Chris Hoeh, a wheelchair user and disability rights advocate who attended the meeting. “They could have just taken the Senate legislation and buried it, or rewritten it and done a compromise that was really bad for us. But they gave us time to try and negotiate. And now, I’m looking forward to working with them to get it to the governor’s desk.”

Read more from the Lowell Sun.

Mass. state prison health care scrutinized (Bay State Banner)

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Bay State Banner published on June 29. The article highlights VitalCore, the new contractor for health care services for the prison population, after years of inadequate services. Prisoners’ Legal Services’ Staff Attorney Ada Lin is quoted.

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections last month announced a new contractor to provide health care services in state prisons, as care and mortality in prisons has received increased scrutiny in recent years.

The contract, with Kansas-based VitalCore Health Strategies, comes as the DOC’s agreement with Wellpath, a Tennessee-based company, is set to expire this summer.

Wellpath, whose agreement goes to the end of this month, has faced concerns that it was failing to provide adequate care to individuals incarcerated in the state, with delayed or denied care, inadequate staffing and failure to following physician treatment plans.

Wellpath and YesCare, another company bidding for the new state contract, were the subject of a letter in February from U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey to the DOC. The politicians raised concerns about the two companies having been subject to congressional oversight and criticism because of record handling health care needs in jails and prisons across the country.

Limited access to care can have a distinct impact, especially on a prison population that trends older, said Ada Lin, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

Read more at the Bay State Banner.

A look inside a Mass. ‘poverty court,’ where no one has the right to an attorney

Below is an excerpt from a June 16 article published by MassLive documenting the experiences of Massachusetts residents facing the housing court system. Community Legal Aid’s Gordon Shaw is quoted.

SPRINGFIELD — It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday. Every row of benches in the Western Housing Court in Springfield is full of people. In the back of the courtroom, about 20 people stand against the wall, including a man holding a toddler.

Welcome to a typical Thursday in housing court.

“Please listen up and focus,” Judge Robert G. Fields tells the room, before explaining what’s ahead. “Housing law is complicated,” he says. He encourages anyone who needs help to visit the court’s resource room, which offers free legal advice on Thursdays.

A clerk reads through the names on each case, taking attendance, listing options and asking what the parties want to do. Hands go up in the gallery and people call out. Some people aren’t there and the clerk declares defaults — meaning the court can file a judgment against them.

Before going into court, attorney Gordon Shaw, director of client access at Community Legal Aid, walks by a bulletin board in the hallway, which displays a 22-page docket for the day. Under “attorney,” more than 100 people are listed as “pro se,” meaning they do not have a lawyer.

“This is the problem in a nutshell,” Shaw said.

Mostly it’s tenants listed as pro se, but some landlords, too, are not represented. Unlike a criminal case, people do not have the right to an attorney in Massachusetts housing court, leaving those who can’t afford an attorney navigating — and often stumbling — through the complex system themselves.

Read more at MassLive.

Have an old or forgotten credit card bill? You might end up carless. (GBH)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the GBH on June 10. The article highlights actions taken by a local debt collector who faces legal complaints due to alleged aggressive debt collection tactics. Greater Boston Legal Services’ Matthew Brooks is quoted.

One summer evening in August 2021, April Washington looked out the window of her Dorchester home and saw her Ford truck being towed away.

Thinking she’d been robbed, the single mother quickly headed to the police station. She was surprised to find that a Massachusetts court had approved a debt buyer’s request to take her property as a way to make her pay about $1,200 the company said she owed on a nearly 20-year-old credit card bill.

Washington was confused. She wasn’t sure the debt was hers, and she’d been talking with representatives of the company, Champion Funding Inc., to reach a resolution. Soon after, she says she spoke to Champion’s owner, Andrew Metcalf of Avon, and was told the truck would be auctioned off if she didn’t pay her alleged debt. But she didn’t hold the title to the car, an auto loan company did.

“It was against the law for him to take my truck, because it doesn’t belong to me,” Washington told GBH News recently. “It put me in a bad position and it cost me.”

Read more at GBH.

Pushback: Fighting for care everyone deserves (Greenfield Recorder)

Below is an excerpt from of an article published by the Greenfield Recorder on June 4 highlighting the contributions of Attorney Steven Schwartz. Schwartz founded the Center for Public Representation (CPR) in 1982 and has been fighting for the rights of the elderly and disabled for over 40 years.

I met attorney Steven Schwartz in 1972. We were working in Greenfield as VISTA volunteers for Franklin Community Action Corporation. The following year Steven created the Greenfield office of Western Mass Legal Services, and a second office in Hampshire County. In 1982, he founded the Center for Public Representation (CPR). For the past 42 years, Schwartz and his team of 10 attorneys, have been freedom fighters for the elderly and disabled, aggressively litigating disability rights cases against Massachusetts and other states — winning rights to community-based care for tens of thousands of citizens segregated inside institutions.

Here are some highlights of CPR’s impressive advocacy victories:

  • Brewster v. Dukakis (1978): Federal consent decree requires the state to create community mental health services for all people with mental illness in western Massachusetts.
  • Rosie D v. Patrick (2006): Federal court requires the state to provide an array of home-based mental health services to over 30,000 children with serious emotional disturbances.
  • Rolland v. Patrick (2000 and 2008): Federal court approves two settlements requiring the commonwealth to transition over 1,600 individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities from nursing facilities into the community with housing and supports.
  • Hutchinson v. Patrick (2008 and 2012): Federal court approves two settlements requiring the state to transition 1,200 individuals with brain injury from nursing facilities into new homes in the community.
  • Marsters v. Healey (2024): Class-action settlement that expands opportunities for thousands of individuals in nursing facilities to receive the services they need to live in their communities with support services.

Read more at the Greenfield Recorder.

Renters hit with no-fault evictions as investors and corporate owners gain hold, advocates say (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the Boston Globe on May 29. The article narrows in on the trend of no-fault evictions in Massachusetts communities, including arguments from both renters and landlords. De Novo Housing Attorney Katherine Fustich is quoted. 

Four days after his Somerville apartment was purchased by an out-of-state investor in early February, Michael Prentky received a letter: His rent was about to go up $1,200, to $3,200 a month, on April 1.

Should he and his partner opt not to renew their at-will tenancy in the three-unit building, Prentky needed to notify the property manager and give 30 days’ notice, the letter said.

“I hate to be cynical, but I had been expecting it,” Prentky, a 32-year-old musician, said recently as he stood outside his building at 22 Sargent Ave.

Since 2018, he’s lived there in Winter Hill in a three-bedroom apartment — which he described as effectively a two-bedroom, as the third is in disrepair.

In the months since the purchase, negotiations over the rent hikes between tenants in the building and the new landlord have stalled. Prentky and a resident in another unit each have received summonses for no-cause evictions — the process allowing landlords to seek to remove tenants for no specific reason.

Read more at the Boston Globe.

I survived homelessness and am now graduating to a better life (Boston Globe)

Below is an excerpt from an opinion piece penned by Massachusetts Law Reform Insitute Client Board Member Timothy Scalona. In his writing, Timothy provides insight into homelessness, poverty, and advocacy as a victim of homelessness. The opinion was published on May 18.

At just 14 years old, I heard a knock at my home’s front door. Deep in the throes of a video game, I paid the sound no mind until I heard screaming, arguing, and the frantic shuffling of cardboard boxes as movers packed up much of our belongings after the sheriff served us an eviction notice.

Before that day, I had no idea that a knock could throw my family of nine into homelessness. That it could rob us of the contents of our home that we couldn’t take with us, rip us from our community, and land us in hotels, motels, and on the street.

In the years that followed, the word home completely disappeared from my vocabulary. Even as I dove into my textbooks, yearning for escape, I worried that I had no future. The challenges of homelessness were too great.

This month, however, I will graduate from law school. But I will have with me more than just a cap, gown, and a diploma: I will be carrying the memory of homelessness, poverty, and of the people I left behind.

Read more at the Boston Globe.