Congress passed on December 21 the FY 2006 Defense Appropriations spending bill. The bill includes a 1% government-wide across-the-board rescission on all discretionary funds, including LSC's appropriation. In combination with the .28 rescission imposed on all programs in the FY 2006 State, Justice, and Commerce spending bill, LSC's final FY 2006 budget is reduced to $326,577,984.
If you are poor in Iowa, the government or a charitable organization is there to help you with food, clothing or shelter. But if you need a lawyer to help with a domestic problem or landlord-tenant dispute, you are pretty much on your own.
One organization - Iowa Legal Aid - provides the bulk of legal services to the poor, from 10 regional offices around the state. But it is perpetually short of money. Next year, it will ask the Legislature for a raise. The organization makes a good case that legal aid can be an investment in reversing poverty.
Last year, Iowa Legal Aid, a private, nonprofit service, helped approximately 45,000 low-income Iowans. But it turns away another 900 every month because of a lack of resources. And for many of those who are helped, the aid is inadequate.
About 80 percent of Iowa Legal Aid's nearly $5 million budget comes from government sources. However, the federal government, once the primary source, has dramatically reduced its support. The shortfall has been made up in part from private contributions, but the state of Iowa has been the largest backstop. Still, that has not kept pace due to continued federal cutbacks.
The organization will ask the Iowa Legislature for an additional $1 million, up from $900,000 this year. The group has identified a source of money from increased civil fines that would cover the additional funding.
Legal Aid provides the sort of assistance that can help poor Iowa families pull themselves out of financial problems, or avoid sinking ever deeper. It resolves disputes involving landlords, employment, consumer fraud and health care. The single largest legal challenge for many low-income families involves domestic disputes, which often prevent parents from providing safe and nurturing homes for their children.
Iowa Legal Aid has been resourceful in recent years in closing what it calls the justice gap, but clearly the job is far from finished.
Programs and agencies geared at stamping out homelessness in Erie County will get $9.4 million in 2006 from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The grants, to be announced locally Thursday, include nearly $3.7 million for new projects and services.
In 2005, programs in Erie County received no new funds through HUD's annual competitive grant-making process.
But local advocates for the homeless said the latest round of grants was smoothing over the disappointment from the 2005 grant announcements.
"For the first time in a long time, we got everything we asked for from HUD," said William T. O'Connell, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, which works with a few dozen community organizations in applying for the federal awards.
The grants are part of $1.3 billion in funding announced recently by HUD Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson.
Shelters and other homeless service providers in New York State will get a total of $127.5 million. Also in Western New York, one program in Orleans County received $65,450, and three programs in Cattaraugus County received a total of $281,066.
The Erie County Department of Mental Health will get the lion's share of the new federal funds - $2.1 million over three years - to provide rental stipends and case management for chronically homeless people who have mental illnesses or addictions to drugs or alcohol.
The money will enable the department to pay for 60 additional apartments - addressing what advocates for the homeless have described as one of the biggest challenges in Buffalo and Erie County.
"Affordable housing is really difficult for the mentally ill," said Don Dauman, the county's coordinator of mental disability services. Vacant space for people with mental illnesses was depleted earlier this year when the YWCA of Western New York closed its North Street adult care facility, which housed 60 people. Those residents were placed in other housing.
Also in Erie County, Neighborhood Legal Services will get $211,559 over two years to help chronically homeless clients apply for federal Supplemental Security Income.
Housing advocates have long maintained that many chronically homeless people are eligible for federal benefits but don't get them because of the challenging application process.
The cost of caring for the chronically homeless, in area shelters and through public assistance, then falls more heavily on local taxpayers. Lawyers for Neighborhood Legal Services estimate county taxpayers could save at least $1,900 per year for each homeless client removed from the public assistance rolls. The grant for Neighborhood Legal Services will target at least 75 clients per year.
So-called predatory lending practices rig a loan in ways that virtually guarantee default and foreclosure. The loan's terms can cost the poor and the elderly everything, leaving behind a trail of abandoned homes.
"These lending practices can create a ghost neighborhood," said Patricia DeWalt, executive director of the Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corp.
Now, Martindale-Brightwood and other organizations in Center Township are joining with Indiana Legal Services to try to prevent abusive mortgage lending methods, in which lenders purposely structure loans with payments the borrower cannot afford, sometimes with payments based on inflated appraisals of the house.
The Coalition for Responsible Lending says predatory lending costs U.S. consumers about $9 billion annually in excess interest and fees. Such practices cost Indiana residents more than $148 million in 2000, the group estimated.
The Mortgage Bankers Association of America reported that Indiana had the second-highest house foreclosure rate in the nation for the second quarter of this year, with foreclosures nearing 3 percent of mortgages. And Indianapolis ranks worst among Indiana cities for foreclosures, with Center Township having the greatest number, Indiana Legal Services says.
Under the new program, called the Saving Homes in Center Township Legal Project, legal experts on a "victim rescue" team will review loans to look for evidence of fraud. Instances of suspected fraud will be referred to the Indiana attorney general's office or to other agencies. In selected cases, an attempt will be made to negotiate fairer terms with the lender.
Still, the best way to avoid trouble is to stay away from predatory lenders, said Norman Metzger, executive director of Indiana Legal Services.
He referred to mailings from mortgage companies that he commonly receives. "You're pre-approved for a mortgage at 110 percent of your appraised value. What does that mean? … If it's too good to be true, it's probably not true," he said.
Other organizations participating in the project include the Organization for a New Eastside, Momentive, the Southeast Neighborhood Development Corp. and the United Northwest Area Development Corp.
The project is an expansion of an earlier effort created by Indiana Legal Services that focused on one Near-Eastside neighborhood. The new program increases the eligible area to all of Center Township. A Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust grant of $35,000 will help cover project costs.
How to avoid bad lenders: The Indiana Legal Services Housing Law Center in Bloomington offers warning signs about predatory lenders. These include aggressive solicitations to targeted neighborhoods, inflated appraisal costs and high annual interest rates.
For more information on predatory lending, including tips on how to avoid foreclosure, visit Indiana Legal Services' Web site at www.indianajustice.org or call (317) 631-9410.
PIERRE - More than 250 South Dakota lawyers have already signed up to participate in a new State Bar program that will provide free legal services for poor people who are unable to get help elsewhere.
For decades, low-income people have been able to get free legal help with civil cases from legal services programs. But a decline in federal funding means that South Dakota's two legal services organizations cannot help everyone who is eligible, Tom Barnett, secretary-treasurer of the State Bar of South Dakota, said.
Those who meet income limits but are unable to get help from the two legal services organizations will be able to contact the new program, Access to Justice, which will seek to match them with lawyers who have agreed to volunteer, Barnett said.
The State Bar and its charitable arm, the South Dakota Bar Foundation, have hired Cheryl Hanna of Mission to be the program's coordinator. Hanna, who has worked with Dakota Plains Legal Services for the past 16 years, plans to have Access to Justice operating by Feb. 1.
State Bar president Bob Riter said Hanna will spread word about the project to lawyers and low-income people who need legal assistance.
"We're really excited about Cheryl joining us. We're even more excited about the opportunities we're going to have to serve people who need to be served," Riter said.
Dakota Plains Legal Services, based in Mission, and East River Legal Services, based in Sioux Falls, now provide free legal help to low-income people in cases that deal with a wide range of issues, such as adoption, child custody, domestic violence, health care and finances.
Low-income people who cannot be served by the two legal services organizations because of a lack of funding and staff will be able to apply for help from Access to Justice.
Although more than 250 attorneys have already agreed to take part, more lawyers are expected to join the program, Barnett said.
Access to Justice not only will coordinate legal representation for low-income people, but will also raise money to help Dakota Plains and East River legal services, Barnett said.
The new organization also will establish education and information programs for poor people and the elderly.
"The elderly have a much tougher problem in dealing with legal problems they can't afford than younger folks do," Barnett said.
Hanna said lawyers can also mentor younger lawyers, including those working at the two legal services organizations.
Students at the University of South Dakota School of Law will volunteer their time to help with legal research and other services, Hanna said.
Barnett said Access to Justice will have a budget of about $100,000 in its first year.
Navigating a lawsuit through the federal court system can be a nightmare with a lawyer, but each year, thousands of people attempt to go it alone, filing complaints and motions often without a clue of what they're doing.
After the new year begins, people who represent themselves in Chicago's federal court will have a hand, courtesy of a help desk that sponsors say is the first of its kind in the country.
The desk, which opens the first week of January on the 20th floor of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, will feature a part-time staff attorney to guide people-many without the means to hire a lawyer-through the morass of federal law.
"It's clearly needed," said U.S. District Chief Judge Charles Kocoras. "If you are not a lawyer, any process involving an elaborate court system with lots of rules and forms and practices is mystifying to the common person."
Kocoras said he hopes that having a trained attorney to help people will streamline the process for judges and the courts while bringing comfort to those who feel abandoned by the system.
"The attorney will give people some information about how to pursue their claims. It could be simply, how am I supposed to file this particular motion, to really getting some more advice," said Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, which is funding the project.
Advice could range from telling someone he doesn't have a case to that he does, but it's too complicated to pursue without a lawyer, Glaves said.
The staff attorney, Legal Assistance Foundation lawyer Margot Klein, will offer advice by appointment but will not represent those seeking aid in court, said Legal Assistance executive director Sheldon Roodman.
People who represent themselves, known as "pro se litigants," also will be able to access Illinois Legal Aid Online through a computer in the help desk office.
As the Sussex County government completes its consolidation of some of its disparate offices into the Cochran building on Spring Street, a nonprofit group that had enjoyed the county's hospitality is emerging as an unintended casualty.
The Newton office of Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, which provides pro bono representation to low-income clients in the county, occupies space at 18 Church St., which until the recent move also housed the county Board of Elections and the Division of Social Services. But once the county sells off the building in the coming months, the group will be forced to find new office space - which, unlike its current digs, will not be rent-free.
At the same time, a volunteer committee has recommended that the county include $3,000 in grant-in-aid funds in 2006, down from $7,390 in 2005.
Similar cuts are being made across the board in funding to nonprofit groups, in the interest of keeping taxes steady.
Still, when the cost of finding new space is factored in, Legal Services is effectively losing 93 percent of its funding from the county, Executive Director Diane K. Smith complained to the county freeholders Wednesday.
"Without continued support, Legal Services will have no place else to turn when 18 Church St. closes," Smith said.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is releasing $6,590,351 in grants to help support 21 programs in Kansas that house and serve homeless people.
Of the total, the city of Topeka and Kansas Legal Services serving Shawnee County will receive $1,380,240 in Continuum of Care grants, which fund a wide variety of programs for the homeless, from street outreach programs to transitional and permanent housing.
Topeka also is receiving $87,872 in emergency shelter grants to help state and local governments create, improve and operate shelters for the homeless.
The local allocations were part of a $1.33 billion program announced Wednesday by HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson.
The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands is sponsoring a pilot Do-It-Yourself Divorce program designed to help individuals file for divorce without the assistance of an attorney. Classes are offered about once a month. For information, or to see if you qualify for the free class, call the Legal Aid Society at 552-6656.
On Saturday, December 17 the House of Representatives passed a Justice Department reauthorization that governs spending through 2009. The bill includes provisions of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (PL 103-322), which is also reauthorized through 2009. The Senate passed the bill the day before after amending several provisions related to VAWA. The bill now goes to the President, who is expected to sign it.
Of particular note to the legal services community is language in Section 104 "Ensuring Crime Victim Assistance to Legal Services." The provision will greatly expand the reach of the Kennedy Amendment to the LSC appropriation, originally adopted in 1997 that permitted LSC recipients to use non-LSC funds to provide service to certain otherwise ineligible aliens who were victims of domestic violence. The new measure permits LSC recipients to use both LSC and non-LSC funds to provide legal assistance to aliens who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking without regard to their immigration or marital status. Recipients may provide any legal assistance that is related to overcoming the victimization.
The Legal Services for New York City (LSNY) Board of Directors has selected Peggy Earisman as the Project Director for its new Manhattan borough-wide program, which combines Harlem Legal Services and LSNY-Manhattan. Cornett Lewers will serve as Board Chair of the new program.
The newly combined Manhattan program was created to provide more effective delivery of legal services to low-income residents of Manhattan who face rising unemployment, a growing chasm between rich and poor, and a critical lack of affordable housing. The program will have offices in Harlem and lower Manhattan.
The merged staff of the new program brings enormous expertise and vast experience, having provided free civil legal representation to thousands of low-income residents of Manhattan for more than four decades. They have helped children who aren't receiving the child support they are entitled to; victims of domestic violence who need help and safe haven; people with AIDS and HIV; and the elderly, who need help fighting eviction or unsafe living conditions.
Ms. Earisman, who served as Interim Project Director of LSNY-Manhattan from January 2003 until her new appointment, is "excited about moving forward to create an enhanced Manhattan-wide program that will offer a broader range of services to our clients and communities." After graduating from Columbia University School of Law in 1980, Ms. Earisman began her career as a Housing Law attorney with the Passaic County Legal Aid Society in New Jersey. She joined LSNY in 1992 as the managing attorney of a LSNY-affiliated office on Manhattan's west side. Over the course of her long and distinguished career, she has worked to provide high quality legal services in a way that reflects communities' needs and desires. This includes representing public housing tenants and the Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side (PHROLES) in seeking to enforce their rights to grievance procedures and to retain their homes; obtaining federal land to construct transitional housing for homeless families; and helping assert the voices of low-income communities in the Lower Manhattan rebuilding effort after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack through representation of the Rebuild Coalition. In recognition of her work, in 1988 Ms. Earisman received the James B. Larsen Award as Staff Attorney of the Year for Legal Services of New Jersey, and in 2001 she was awarded a Legal Services Award from the New York City Bar Association.
Cornett Lewers, who will chair the Board of Directors of the newly merged program, began serving as Interim Director of Harlem Legal Services on a pro bono basis early in 2005. Before working at Harlem Legal Services, Mr. Lewers was most recently Vice President and Associate General Counsel with Starwood Hotels, and he plans to return to the private sector after stepping down as Interim Director. Prior to the merger, Mr. Lewers had been Chairman of the Harlem Legal Services Board of Directors.
Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of Good Old Lower East Side, Inc. (GOLES), a neighborhood housing and preservation organization serving Manhattan's lower east side, expressed excitement about the reorganization of the Manhattan program, and the selection of Ms. Earisman. "Low-income people in Manhattan are desperate for more legal help, especially as the rich/poor income gap continues to widen and affordable housing disappears. With her extensive legal experience and deep ties to the Manhattan community, Ms. Earisman is positioned to lead a program that will serve as a vital component of the network of support services low-income New Yorkers depend on."
Andrew Scherer, LSNY's Executive Director, echoed these sentiments. "After an extensive national search conducted with the assistance of a LSNY-wide search committee, Ms. Earisman was chosen from a field of excellent candidates because of her extraordinary commitment to high quality community based legal services, and her enormous depth of experience, legal talent and leadership abilities. LSNY also owes a great debt of gratitude to Cornett Lewers for his incredibly generous pro bono commitment to the program during this transition period and as we move forward. Together, Peggy Earisman and Cornett Lewers will no doubt develop the newly merged program into a premiere source of legal assistance for the low-income communities of Manhattan."
Local agencies are searching for volunteers to help assist with a countywide effort aimed at helping low-income working families.
The Internal Revenue Service, the Butler County Workplace, the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati and United Way of Greater Cincinnati are among several community organizations working together to promote "It's Money in Your Pocket" - a campaign launched to educate low-income workers about the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.
The groups are searching for volunteers to help provide free tax preparation services to low- and moderate-income residents.
"We aim to educate people on the EITC and other credits for which they may be eligible and file their taxes for free," said Regina Campbell, an attorney with Legal Aid. "Many workers who do not think they owe taxes simply do not file and lose potentially thousands of dollars in EITC and other credits. Others file, but pay commercial tax preparers hundreds of dollars in fees."
The Internal Revenue Service estimates that each year thousands of Butler County residents miss out on $2 million to $3 million in potential EITC benefits - "an enormous potential windfall for folks who typically earn less than $14,000 a year," Campbell said.
Four-hour training sessions for volunteers begin in January and the tax preparation season runs January through mid-April.
Once trained, volunteers can sign up to assist families based on their own schedule and availability, Campbell said.
Last year volunteers helped prepare 269 returns, which brought in nearly half a million dollars in tax refunds to the Butler County economy, Campbell said.
"This year we hope to double our results," she said. "We have a variety of different volunteer opportunities, but our primary need is for tax preparers. We also need more experienced tax professionals who can provide assistance to our tax preparers and prepare any complicated returns that come in."
Legal Aid of West Virginia announced today that it has raised more than $800,000 in three years to boost its program, which provides legal representation for low-income West Virginians.
More than 50 law firms and 237 individual donors have pledged to the cause, said campaign co-chairman Al Emch.
Though Emch would have preferred a larger number of contributions, he said that Legal Aid ranks high in what it collects in donations.
"When the campaign was looked at nationally, we've been told that on a per-capita basis, this is the best they've seen," said Emch, chief executive officer of Jackson Kelly. "It's a tribute to the folks and lawyers of the state and their giving nature."
The contribution of $800,000 has helped annually fund work for 500 clients, said Adrienne Worthy, Legal Aid's executive director.
"Legal Aid attorneys do the work that many of us want to do, but can't," Emch said. "They have just 37 attorneys working statewide helping people who have no place else to turn solve their everyday legal problems."