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from Crain’s Cleveland Business: Legal aid providers, already stretched thin, anticipate surge in evictions and requests for help

Posted July 28, 2020
4:00 pm

Written by Jeremy Nobile in Crain's Cleveland Business on 07/28/2020

Unemployment levels remain high. The $600 unemployment bonus is set to end in July. Courts have largely reopened, and eviction moratoriums are evaporating — in fact, eviction filings, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, have already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in some places.

For legal aid groups, this is writing on the wall pointing to a heavy upcoming level of need as struggling Americans trying to make ends meet lose the safety nets they've had the past few months to stay in their homes and protect their credit.

Always stretched thin, legal aid groups — like the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and Community Legal Aid in Akron — continuously face tough decisions of who to help and who to turn away because of finite resources. The requests for help have only picked up in recent months, and the situation could become even more dire in the future.

That's why the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), the national nonprofit that funds legal aid providers across the country, is asking Congress for an additional $100 million in emergency funds to help groups like those in Northeast Ohio help those in need.

A recent survey of LSC organizations serving low- and moderate-income communities found that 97% of grantees are anticipating a surge in need for legal help in the coming weeks. Those needs could be most acute in the areas of eviction, foreclosures, unemployment assistance and appeals, consumer debt and income maintenance.

Meanwhile, 94% of respondents report seeing requests for help from people newly eligible for legal aid assistance (i.e. being within 125% of federal poverty guidelines). On average, grantees are reporting a nearly 18% increase of eligible clients as a result of the pandemic.

"The survey responses confirm that the pandemic and its economic consequences are causing or will cause a spike in legal needs in areas such as evictions, unemployment claims and domestic violence," said LSC president Ronald Flagg in a statement. "America's legal aid programs are responding innovatively to meet those needs while providing their services remotely and while facing state and local funding cuts."

The legal aid groups in Cleveland and Akron received about $350,000 and $307,000 in grants from the LSC earlier this year, respectively, as a result of the CARES Act. That money was used to upgrade technology to enable better and more reliable remote service for clients and to hire more attorneys and some support staff.

If LSC secures additional funding, both groups could see grants of roughly double those previous amounts. That money would cover the hiring of additional staff attorneys to address the coming need.

"There is no question what's happening in our community is playing out in the low-income community with a lot of people who find themselves newly poor because of the economic crisis that's happening," said Steven McGarrity, executive director for Community Legal Aid. "There are a lot of issues people face in housing and public assistance, and the best remedy to get them what they need is through the help of a lawyer. And the people in this community who can do that are with the local legal aid organizations."

Community Legal Aid has already pivoted to help individuals in certain areas, like in eviction and unemployment benefits. The group has stopped accepting asks for help related to divorce, for example — with the exception of those related to domestic violence.

Between May 1 and July 15, requests related to unemployment compensation have surged 400%. Staff have been redirected to work on those cases, which include securing the $1,200 government stimulus payments for low-income individuals who didn't file tax returns.

The eviction situation, though, is one where "we're terrified of what's coming," McGarrity said.

That's something Colleen Cotter, executive director for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, is equally fretting about. Requests for assistance in landlord/tenant issues is up 25% compared to last July, she said, and undoubtedly will climb. Requests for work-related issues, like unemployment, are up 46% over last year.

"The economic impact of the pandemic is hitting people in poverty and those living paycheck to paycheck with particular ferocity," Cotter said. "Legal aid is adding capacity to meet the increased need in related legal issues, but the demand is pretty overwhelming."

That extra money from the LSC, by the way, is not necessarily a straight increase in funding — it's largely replacing some lost capital even as community support keeps individual donations coming in.

This is because of the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation, which helps fund legal aid groups in the state with interest generated from lawyer trust accounts. Because of the drop in federal interest rates, which are likely to stay at rock bottom for the foreseeable future, that funding has diminished.

Community Legal Aid, for example, is expecting about 18% less (roughly $400,000) of its previous $2.2 million allocation.

"Any extra money is really compensating us for that loss of revenue we are anticipating," McGarrity said.

The LSC has submitted a request to Congress for $100 million in emergency funds to enable grantees to provide additional assistance as result of the pandemic. The CARES Act included $50 million for LSC. In May, the House passed the HEROES Act, which includes an additional $50 million for LSC; the Senate is discussing the next legislation to address the impact of COVID-19.

Go here to learn more about the LSC survey and its campaign for additional funding.

Click here to read the full article in Crain's Cleveland Business

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