Free Legal Services a Powerful Tool for Preventing Homelessness

This is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week. I don’t suppose anyone who lives in a major metro area needs a special week to become aware of homeless people.

Here in the District of Columbia, we see them on the streets every day. And we know (or should) that we see only a relative few of the thousands who don’t have a home of their own.

The District has taken a leaf out of the strategic plan produced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — the goal of ending homelessness by 2020.

Or rather, it’s adopted and expanded the goal, since the nationwide plan merely “set[s] a path” for ending homelessness among adults who don’t have children in their care. The District instead aims to have homelessness be “rare, brief, and non-recurring” for all residents.

Though the goal is broader, the meaning of ending homelessness is the same. The plans recognize that some people will, at some point, have no place to live except a shelter. But optimally, they’ll be re-housed swiftly. And a relative few will need re-housing again.

Making homelessness rare and nonrecurring implies prevention. Significantly increasing the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income residents — especially the very lowest-income — is a big part of that.

But the District has other preventive resources too. Its plan refers to emergency rental assistance, for example — one-time cash equivalent aid for certain types of people who’ve fallen behind on their rent or will if they can’t move to a cheaper place.

Beyond that, its plan focuses on several other groups at especially high risk of immediate homelessness. It envisions “prioritizing housing resources” to individuals whose mental health and/or substance abuse problems put them at greatest risk.

And it refers to plans that will help people who haven’t had to cope with housing before or for quite awhile, i.e., youth who are reaching the maximum age for foster care and people who’ll soon be released from jail, prison or the youth equivalent thereof.

Another form of assistance can prevent homelessness — free legal aid for individuals and families facing eviction or impermissible rent increases that could pave the way.

It also prevents them from having to leave their homes, with no place to go because landlords have so egregiously neglected repairs. And let’s not forget help in securing public benefits that can help pay rent.

The District has an impressive number of nonprofits that low-income residents at risk of homelessness for such reasons can turn to. And private law firms provide substantial pro bono services, both directly to individuals and as partners with nonprofits.

It’s still the case that many low-income residents stand before a judge alone and unprepared. Judges are not only aware of this, but deeply concerned.

Last year, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Appeals testified that he and his colleagues view “the growing number of litigants who are forced to seek justice without benefit of counsel” as “the principal barrier to ensuring equal access to justice.”

This is an old story. And it’s hardly unique to the District. The Legal Services Corporation, which awards grants to nonprofits that provide free legal aid, has lost federal funding — at least in real dollars — since 1981.

And restrictions Congress has imposed on what grantees can do has limited their effectiveness, prompting some nonprofits, including the D.C. Legal Aid Society to forgo the funds.

The recession has shrunk funding for nonprofit legal services too. States cut their share of funding to balance their budgets with shrunken tax revenues.

At the same time, Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts — another source of funding for free legal services — plummeted as banks cut their interest rates in response to the Federal Reserve’s near-zero lending rate. Doubtful the recovery has spread to IOLTA, since the Fed hasn’t yet changed its policy.

We don’t, so far as I know, have current data on what LCS has termed “the justice gap.” A study it conducted about 10 years ago indicated that fewer than one in five low-income people with legal problems of a non-criminal sort had any assistance from a lawyer.

LCS-funded programs themselves turned away an estimated two-thirds of people who sought help with housing problems — the second most common type of help requested.

A District-specific report issued in 2009 warned of increasing recession-related needs for legal aid, including a rash of foreclosures. At the same time, legal services programs here had lost, on average, 25% of their funding, not counting a recent cut the District had made.

LCS funding is up in the air. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a $10 million increase — hardly enough to restore prior cuts. The full House has voted to slash the Corporation’s funding by $75 million.

The outcome will have an impact on the Neighborhood Legal Services Program — one of the District’s major sources of free legal assistance in housing cases. Local funding for District programs has inched up over the last five years. But it’s still only about $5 million — not all of it, for good and proper reasons, for services that can prevent homelessness.

One understands why strategic plans to end homelessness don’t mention free professional legal services — and thus why they’re not included in related budget proposals.

The collaborating agencies — and in the District’s case, community organizations that have a role in housing placements — don’t want to alienate landlords, since progress toward ending homelessness hinges in part on what they choose to do (and not).

Nor, one supposes, do the agencies cotton to the notion of acknowledging that the nonprofits and pro bono partners that challenge them are preventing — or foreshortening — homelessness.

But we who aren’t so constrained can do so — and advocate for them, as we should even if homelessness were ended.

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