‘My anxiety was through the roof.’ Eviction threats heightened during COVID-19

It seemed like the world was crashing down on Antonia Arman. She was out of work, as was her mother who lives with her. Also living in their apartment are Arman’s sons, one of whom is 23 and the other 10. To make matters worse, Arman, 51, and her mother each contracted COVID-19.

It all added up to a drastic cut in family income, and overdue rent piled up. Eventually, a court summons arrived in the mail signaling the start of possible eviction proceedings….

Many are unaware of services available to help them. The key is to get the word out, said Betsy Soule, executive director of MetroWest Legal Services Inc., a Framingham nonprofit that provides advocacy to low-income families….“We’re trying to do as much as we can,” said Soule to explain her organization’s efforts to inform communities about programs to help those who face eviction and foreclosure. “The sooner you can cut off and solve it, the better.”…

Read more in MetroWest Daily News.

‘Afraid of taking the subway’: Atlanta murders raise safety concerns for Asian workers, businesses

Anti-Asian violence has sharply increased since the onset of COVID-19 and the xenophobic rhetoric used by Donald Trump and other politicians to blame China for its spread. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition formed to address anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, has received reports of 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents since last March. The group found that businesses are the primary location where these incidents occur, followed by public streets and parks….

Thao Ho, who works as a paralegal and community organizer to support nail salon workers in Massachusetts, said the industry is staffed mostly by Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. One salon worker who has been putting in longer hours to earn enough to get by during the pandemic told her she’s uneasy about traveling home later at night than she used to.

“The day after the murders . . . she told me she was really afraid of taking the subway,” Ho said. “Although she can’t actually point to any [violence against her], she feels in her heart that it is a necessity to even switch train cars so that she is not by herself.”…

Read more in the Boston Globe.

Last Call with Gina Plata-Nino, Community Legal Aid Attorney

Gina Plata-Nino is a key leader within the Worcester Together Coalition, in addition to her full-time role as a Community Legal Aid attorney.

Read the full Q+A with Gina Plata-Nino in Worcester Magazine.

State’s housing assistance program posts big gains

The state’s emergency housing assistance program is upping its game, pushing more money out the door and helping more people struggling to avoid eviction.

As of January 13, the program had dispensed only $22.6 million of the $100 million available. But now that figure has more than doubled to $48.4 million. The number of households helped is also rising, although that data isn’t as current. The program helped 2,676 households in January, a big boost over the 1,267 helped in December….

Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said efforts to improve the RAFT program seem to be working. “Overall it seems RAFT processing times are improving, though there are still challenges in various regions,” she said. “Unfortunately, evictions were allowed to resume long before these systems were ready.”

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

CLA wins major court victory for workers seeking unemployment benefits

DUA had been putting unemployment claims on “hold” for months.

Community Legal Aid won a major court victory in an important case against the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), the state agency that administers unemployment insurance benefits in Massachusetts.

Representing several workers, Community Legal Aid filed a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction late last year in Worcester Superior Court, seeking to require DUA to follow its own rules with respect to the evaluation of claims, and stop harmful practices it had adopted during the pandemic. In its Memorandum of Decision dated March 2, 2021, the Worcester Superior Court agreed, and ordered DUA to follow the processes required under Massachusetts law.

Community Legal Aid’s Litigation Director, Leigh Woodruff, commented “This injunction will stop a number of practices of DUA that have been extremely harmful to large numbers of people who have filed claims for unemployment benefits, including claimants being put on ‘hold’ for extended periods, approved claimants having benefits stopped because of redeterminations without any opportunity to be heard, and claimants having current benefits stopped to recover old overpayments that are actually under appeal. Under this order, DUA can no longer put claims on hold and leave families in limbo without income or any way to appeal — for months on end.”

The clients (“Plaintiffs”) represented by Community Legal Aid in this case were workers whose employment had been affected by the pandemic. DUA had initially approved these Plaintiffs’ claims and began paying them benefits. But later, DUA suddenly stopped making payments, and even demanded some claimants repay thousands of dollars. Before taking these actions, DUA never notified Plaintiffs of any problems and/or did not permit them to submit evidence to resolve any questions or uncertainties. With the Preliminary Injunction, the Court has ordered DUA to stop these practices because they deprive workers of benefits without due process in violation of federal and state law, and are contrary to DUA’s own rules and regulations.

Community Legal Aid has reached out to DUA asking how it intends to comply with the Court’s order.

The case is Marrero et al. v. Jeffers, 2085-CV-00937 (Worcester Superior Court), Memorandum of Decision and Order, dated March 2, 2021 (Allowing, in part, Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction). https://communitylegal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Marrero-v.-Jeffers-DUA-2021.pdf

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Springfield Officials Stress Help Is Available For People To Avoid Eviction

Government funds have helped people in western Massachusetts stay in their homes as jobs were lost and income shrank during the pandemic.

Last June, the city of Springfield announced a $2 million emergency housing fund to help people pay rent, mortgage, and utility bills. All but $140,000 has now been claimed.

The state has put millions into housing assistance. Additionally, Springfield last year awarded $5 million to four social service agencies to assist the homeless. Most of that money has not yet been spent, according to Gerry McCafferty, the city’s Director of Housing….

Eviction proceedings are put on hold once someone makes an application for assistance, said Jane Edmonstone of Community Legal Aid.

“There have been many times that Way Finders and legal defense have come rushing in as the moving trucks were pulling up and able to walk that back,” she said…. Read more from WAMC.

Boston advocacy groups will argue to keep policy in lawsuit challenging new exam school admissions process

A coalition of Black, Asian and Latino advocacy groups will intervene in a lawsuit brought on by Boston parents that challenges a new admissions process for entry into the city’s elite exam schools, a policy the coalition wants to keep in place….

The lawsuit filed Friday by the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence against the school committee and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius argues that a new exam school admissions process that suspends for one year the use of an entry exam and instead weighs student performance, zip code and GPA or MCAS results is unfair and disfavors white and Asian students….

Bethany Li, director of Greater Boston Legal Services’ Asian Outreach Project said, “The Asian American community wants to make clear that it won’t be a wedge between other people of color and white people in this fight for racial justice.” …Read more in The Boston Herald.

As bills pile up for many jobless workers, state’s ‘dinosaur’ benefits system provides only frustration

For many Massachusetts workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, the stress of being laid off has been magnified by the Sisyphean effort to navigate a balky unemployment system that has been hammered by more than 2.7 million new claims filed since mid-March of last year….

“They weren’t prepared to address unemployment in regular times,” said Rory MacAneney, an employment attorney at Community Legal Aid in Worcester, which has opened more than 500 unemployment cases since March 17 of last year. “When the system became strained, it was straining an already ineffective and inefficient system.”

…“They can correct a problem with accuracy later,” Leigh Woodruff, litigation director at Community Legal Aid, said of the state. “They cannot correct a problem with promptness later because after months and months without benefits, those families will already be financially devastated in ways that will potentially harm them for the rest of their lives.” Read more in The Boston Globe.

Why are Latinos so overrepresented in the state child welfare system?

Raquel, who did not want her last name used, is one of thousands of Latino families struggling to navigate a state child welfare system that is disproportionately ensnaring members of their community – and that is not always well-positioned to serve them. Latino children are more likely than white children to have an open DCF case and more likely to be removed from their homes. In fact, according to the national research organization Child Trends, Latinos were more overrepresented in foster care in Massachusetts than in any other state…

Susan Elsen, a staff attorney in the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s family and child justice unit, said the statistics show that the racial disparity in DCF starts at the front of the system, when families are first flagged for attention, usually by mandated reporters. The fact that the disparity persists and leads to Latino children being removed from their homes suggests that DCF also needs more interventions to help families once they enter the system. “We have to affirmatively do something to reduce the racial disproportionality as kids go through the system,” Elsen said….

Elsen said cultural factors could also play a role in how DCF evaluates families. For example, the agency might impose space and room requirements, which would consider having a child sleeping on a living room couch unacceptable, even if the child is comfortable. Latino families may be more willing to rely on extended family or community to supervise a child, while DCF wants more supervision in the immediate household.

“Often, if you evaluate a family from a perspective of a white middle-class person and you haven’t been trained to understand the way another culture might operate, what their strengths are and how they do parenting, then you may just see differences as deficits, and you may not even perceive the strengths,” Elsen said… Read more in Commonwealth Magazine.

When Does COVID-19 Become A Disability? ‘Long-Haulers’ Push For Answers And Benefits

When COVID-19 first arrived in the U.S., Jodee Pineau-Chaisson was working as the director of social services for a nursing home in western Massachusetts. By the middle of April, residents at the Center for Extended Care in Amherst were getting sick.

Pineau-Chaisson is a so-called long-hauler. These are people who survive COVID-19 but have symptoms — sometimes debilitating symptoms — many months later. As scientists scramble to explain what is going on and figure out how to help, disability advocates are also scrambling: They are trying to figure out whether long-haulers will qualify for disability benefits.

COVID-19 survivors are the newest group to approach the federal government for disability coverage, and it’s unclear whether they will be considered eligible….

“I do think it’s still an open question. It’s still a little iffy about whether [long-haulers] will be able to qualify,” says Linda Landry, an attorney at the Disability Law Center in Massachusetts.

She says it seems clear that long-haulers qualify for protections under the Americans with Disability Act, which would afford them accommodations for things like housing and accessing government services. But the question of whether long-haulers will be eligible for federal disability benefits is still being debated…

The requirement is that “you have to have had or are likely to have a condition that affects your ability to work for 12 consecutive months,” Landry says… Read more from WBUR.