Mass. vocational schools policy violates student civil rights, complaint says (The Boston Globe)

In a Feb. 2 article, The Boston Globe reported on a complaint filed in federal court against the state of Massachusetts about the admissions practices of vocational schools. The Center for Law and Education, along with Lawyers for Civil Rights, filed the complaint. An excerpt of the article is below.

Massachusetts vocational schools and technical programs are systematically denying admission to students of color, those from low-income families, and other at-risk populations, closing off career pathways to some of the very people they were designed to help, two legal aid organizations said in a lawsuit filed against the state Thursday.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Boston by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center of Law and Education, argues the state’s use of “exclusionary criteria,” which includes using grades, attendance, and disciplinary records to determine admission, is discriminatory. The result, they argued, is that students, of color, from low-income homes, those with disabilities, and those still learning English are admitted to career vocational schools and programs at disproportionately lower rates than their peers.

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Lawsuit alleges racial discrimination in tenant screening tool (CommonWealth Magazine)

CommonWealth Magazine recently reported on developments in the Louis vs. SafeRent Solutions case. An excerpt of the article is below. The plaintiffs in this case are represented by attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services; the Washington, DC-based firm Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll; and the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center.

Two Black women from Massachusetts are at the center of what could become a landmark federal case about whether software that screens potential tenants is illegally biased against Black and Hispanic applicants.

Rachael Rollins, the US attorney for Massachusetts, weighed in on the case, Louis vs. SafeRent Solutions, in a court brief this week, arguing that the technology used by tenant screening companies must comply with anti-discrimination rules. “Algorithms are written by people. As such, they are susceptible to all of the biases, implicit or explicit, of the people that create them,” Rollins said in a statement. Rollins said her filing “recognizes that our 20th century civil rights laws apply to 21st century innovations.”

SafeRent Solutions is a company used by landlords to screen potential tenants. SafeRent gives rental applicants a risk score based on their credit history, other credit-related information including non-tenancy debts, and eviction history.

Read more at CommonWealth Magazine.

Advocates question conditions at shelter for migrants and families experiencing homelessness (WBUR)

Adam Hoole, a senior paralegal at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), and Liz Alfred, a staff attorney at GBLS, were quoted in a Dec. 15 article by WBUR. Below is an excerpt of the article.

Showers in a tent outdoors. Dozens of cots lined up in tight rows. A chilly draft blowing all night. These are some of the conditions alarming advocates at a new facility set up to help families with children who are experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts.

State officials opened the temporary shelter and intake center in Devens earlier this week to help manage a spike in new immigrants and families seeking assistance.

Some of the factors driving the rise in homelessness include record-high housing prices and an increase in families arriving after fleeing violence in places like Haiti and South America.

The temporary facility, at the Bob Eisengrein Community Center, is intended to ease the strain on municipal services, nonprofits and the state’s family shelter system – or Emergency Assistance shelter – which is already at capacity.

Read more at WBUR.

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.