By John Carroll
The service area of MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) encompasses the soon-to-be-city of Framingham (town residents voted to transition to city status as of Jan. 1, 2018) and 44 surrounding towns west of Boston. Despite a staff of just 22—including 15 full-time attorneys, the organization assists over 2,500 low-income people a year in resolving non-criminal legal matters related to basic but essential needs like housing, health care, protection from domestic abuse, and child support. Needless to say, the MWLS office is usually a pretty busy place.
Nonetheless, Tuesday, August 22 was more hectic than usual. By noon that day, three homeless families turned up at MWLS after being told they did not qualify for state-run Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter. Two of the families weren’t even allowed to fill out an application—they were simply turned away after cursory interviews in which they attempted to briefly explain the complex circumstances of their homelessness. These three families brought the total number of homeless families seeking MWLS’s help getting emergency shelter over 10-day period to six.
“As I heard these stories, one was worse than the next,” wrote MWLS Executive Director Elizabeth “Betsy” Soulé in a recent MWLS newsletter. A mother and child sleeping in their car at a local park. A mother and her severely autistic child who fled domestic violence in another country were made to leave the apartment of the mother’s sister, lest the sister be evicted. A disabled veteran, his recently unemployed wife, teenage son, service dog and aging cat who had been sleeping in their car for two months. The reasons they were turned away from emergency shelter were senseless. The mother and child sleeping at the park, for example, were denied because, lacking a camera or a phone with a camera, they couldn’t produce photographic evidence that they were sleeping in their car.
Fortunately, after a day and a half of meetings and negotiations with the legal department of the state agency that administers emergency shelter, MWLS saw to it that these families received the services they needed. Even better, in the interim, a generous MWLS donor provided funds to rent hotel rooms for the stranded families.
Aside from housing, MWLS includes units dedicated to elder issues, special education, domestic violence, immigration, victims of crime, worker related issues, and others, as well as an innovative medical-legal partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Framingham.
MWLS was founded in 1976 as an arm of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council. Since then, it has merged through several iterations into the multi-service legal office that it is today. Soulé’s tenure at MWLS stretches nearly 30 years to 1988, when she joined the organization as a supervising attorney. She has served as executive director since 2008, overseeing MWLS’s vast service area, which encompasses 25-30 House districts and 10 Senatorial districts, with political aplomb. Soulé knows all of the area’s elected officials, and they know her. They also know that she serves their mutual constituents very well. With more than 40,000 people living in poverty in the MWLS service area, Soulé does her best to see that all eligible citizens are served well, but she knows the blanket is too small for the bed. As she lamented in a local newspaper profile on the occasion of the MWLS’s 40th anniversary last year, “there are just way more people who need our help than we can reach because of a lack of resources.”
Despite the daily struggle to meet the needs of as many clients as possible, MWLS staff are deeply committed to working to remove barriers to justice for low-income people west of Boston.
“Nobody goes into this for the money,” Soulé told the Boston Globe last year. “They’re doing it because it’s important and they’re committed to the mission. It’s tough work. It’s intense work, but the benefits literally mean the difference between life and death sometimes.”
John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.