Can you imagine raising your kids in a home with no heat, damaged walls, doors that let in rain, broken windows, and filthy flooring?

Guest Blog for National Pro Bono Week:

That’s what the Chavez family was doing – and it is why I am so thankful I had the privilege of being their pro bono lawyer.

Happy National Pro Bono Week!  Created by the American Bar Association, Pro Bono Week focuses the nation’s attention on the increased need for pro bono services during these challenging economic times and celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.  Here in California we celebrate the work of the law students and attorneys who donate thousands of hours to bring more free, life-saving legal help to Californians in need.  At OneJustice, we believe these volunteers are heroes – and we are proud to bring the following guest blog post from our very own hero, Advisory Board member Marley Degner.

Guest Blog:  Preventing Homelessness for the Chavez Family – My First Pro Bono Case.

Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury and OneJustice Advisory Board Member, prevented the Chavez family from becoming homeless and fought for 7 months for their housing rights.

By Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

I met Mauricio and Sugey Chavez as a new attorney at the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.  It took seven long months – from November 2007 to May 2008 – to help them stabilize their housing, but doing so was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.

Mauricio and Sugey were a young couple with three young children and a fourth on the way.  The Chavez family was seeking help in fighting their landlords’ attempt to evict them from their apartment.  Mauricio had grown up in the apartment, lived there for 18 years, and even married Sugey in the living room.  They went first to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for help and were referred to my law firm – Pillsbury – for pro bono assistance.  Their case was the first pro bono matter, and indeed one of the first cases, that I took on as a new attorney.

Most eviction cases are resolved quickly, but not this one. First, the landlords attempted to evict the family on the basis of trivialities (such as saying that the family set out the garbage in the wrong place) and trumped up allegations – like the family had a dog and set up a satellite dish, even though the landlord had previously agreed to both.

Here is what was really going on.  The apartment had a wide array of serious problems – and the Chavez family had finally gotten up the courage to complain.  In fact, Sugey called the Department of Building Inspection, and when the Inspector came out he found numerous building code violations, including that the apartment lacked any source of heat, that the walls were damaged and poorly repaired, that one of the doors had a hole that admitted rain, that the ceilings and many of the windows needed to be repaired, and that the flooring was damaged and filthy.  And what did the landlords do after being cited for these violations?  They filed the paperwork to evict the Chavez family and their children – and they even had the audacity to tell the family they were being evicted for costing them so much money.

Celebrate Pro Bono Image!

National Pro Bono Week, October 22-27, celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.

And that is why it was so important that the Chavez family had access to representation by an attorney.  By demonstrating the eviction was retaliatory and without good cause, I got the case dismissed.  I also negotiated a Settlement Agreement that forced the landlords to make all the repairs identified in the inspection, make additional renovations to improve the apartment, and even lower the monthly rent.  This was a major win for Mauricio and Sugey – the promise of finally having appropriate living conditions for their children.

Before the repairs could be completed, however, the apartment became infested with mold after the ceiling leaked during a rainstorm.  Mauricio and Sugey’s youngest daughter suffered a severe allergy attack.  The landlords informed the family that they had to temporarily relocate (so the landlords could make more extensive renovations), but assured me that the family could reoccupy the apartment once the work was completed.  But then the landlords tried to back out on the deal – they served the family with a Notice to Vacate that did not allow them to return to their home.  Once again, I was able to step in and protect Mauricio and Sugey’s rights, and the landlords rescinded the notice.

But then the landlords announced that they were going to ask the San Francisco Rent Board for a substantial rent increase, despite the Settlement Agreement where they agreed to a reduced rent amount.  At this point, Mauricio and Sugey were so tired of dealing with the landlords’ behavior that they were open to negotiating a new agreement to move out of the apartment all together. Consistent with the family’s wishes, I negotiated a buy-out of their tenancy for approximately $25,000.  The family used the settlement payment to secure a home loan—and Sugey Chavez gave birth to the family’s fourth child, Giselle.

OneJustice Volunteers Interview a Client

Preventing Homelessness: Each year the network of legal services nonprofits that OneJustice supports provides free legal help on housing matters to over 58,000 low-income families.

What I will always remember about the case was how grateful the Chavez family was for Pillsbury’s assistance.  Sugey told me that she had never had anybody in her life to fight for her the way that I fought for her family, and she was deeply touched.  It made a huge difference that they had attorneys fighting for them – and I am very thankful that I was able to be one of those attorneys.  I had always known that I would be involved with pro bono work as an attorney, and working with Mauricio and Sugey Chavez reaffirmed that commitment.  I have been active in pro bono cases ever since and it is a vitally important part of my professional life.

I am involved with OneJustice because OneJustice exists to make sure that people like the Chavez family have access to legal representation.  I do not know what would have happened to them if they had not been able to secure pro bono help – and quickly – after receiving the first eviction notice.  Their landlords were furious at them for calling the Building Inspector and were determined to use the legal system to evict the family or to raise their rent when the health and safety of the family was threatened by their living conditions.  People like the Chavez family depend on organizations like OneJustice to survive, and that’s why I’m so proud to serve on the OneJustice Advisory Board.

What do a gymnast, board game addict, and foodie have in common?

They all believe passionately in removing barriers to justice – and so they just joined the staff team at OneJustice!

Meet Lauren Roberts, Stephen Downey, and Renae Getlin – the newest members of the OneJustice team – and they also happen to be a foodie, former gymnast, and board game addict!  Which one is which?  Continue reading to find out!  (And you can always see our entire staff team on our website!).

Meet Lauren Roberts, new Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow, working on the Justice Bus Project in Northern California!

Lauren Roberts

Lauren will be leading Justice Bus trips all over Northern California, bringing free legal services to rural areas!

Q:  Lauren, what drew you to the work of OneJustice?
A: I was aware of OneJustice’s great work throughout law school – in fact I got my summer 2L job through OneJustice’s annual Public Interest/Public Sector Career Day! OneJustice is uniquely positioned to assess legal needs in rural and isolated areas of California and to connect law students and pro bono advocates to legal services organizations in order to meet that need.  I was thrilled to become a part of the OneJustice team after graduating from law school, since my position at OneJustice perfectly combines my passion for public interest legal work and organizing.

Q: What will you be responsible for at OneJustice – and what do you hope to achieve?
A:  I will be responsible for running the Justice Bus Project in Northern California. Through this position, I will continue to connect pro bono legal advocates with legal services in Northern California to help meet legal needs in rural and isolated areas of the state. This year, I plan to bring the Justice Bus project to new areas of Northern California and continue to expand OneJustice’s law school and pro bono partnerships.

Q: What did you do before coming to OneJustice?
A: I graduated from UC Davis School of Law in May 2012. During law school, I was heavily involved in the public interest community and spent my two summers working at the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, Egypt, and the California Appellate Project in San Francisco, respectively.

Q:  Tell us something else about yourself!
A: I was a gymnast for fifteen years and later became a dance major at UCLA.

Meet Stephen Downey, new Program Associate working on our legal resource websitewww.LawHelpCalifornia.org!

Stephen will be working on LawHelpCA.org, our legal resource and referral website

Q: Stephen, what made you interested in working at OneJustice?
A: Far too many people fall through the cracks when it comes to access to legal help. OneJustice does an amazing job filling these gaps, whether it’s by physically bringing attorneys to people in need, or providing basic legal information to everyday people like me!

Q: Tell us more about your project!
A: I’ll be responsible for the LawHelpCA website. By building upon its self-help legal resources, I hope Californians in all walks of life will feel empowered, even if they do not have access to an attorney.

Q: What did you do before coming to OneJustice? 
A: After graduating from UC Berkeley, I got involved with several nonprofits in the Bay Area. Most recently, I was working at Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center coordinating free trainings for HIV service providers and fighting HIV-related stigma in the A&PI community.

Q: And tell us something quirky about you!
A: On the weekends, I like to bust out board games to tend my farm, cure diseases, and settle catans.

Meet Renae Getlin, new Executive and Administrative Assistant!

Renae provides a backbone of programmatic and administrative support!

Q: Renae, what is your personal connection to OneJustice’s work?
A: During college, I became passionate about the intersection of food and public health – particularly the disparity between our country’s ability to produce a huge surplus of food and its surprisingly high rate of hunger and starvation. I love that OneJustice recognizes this inequality and plays an essential role in helping disenfranchised community members access fresh food and other fundamental resources.

Q: What will you be responsible for at OneJustice and what are your goals for that work?
A: I will be responsible for providing administrative assistance to our Executive Director and the OneJustice team. By providing a backbone of support, I hope to help OneJustice better serve its network of nonprofits and our community members in need.

Q: What did you do before coming to OneJustice?
A: I worked as a receptionist and records clerk at an East Bay law firm. While that experience gave me the administrative background to fill my new role at OneJustice, working with my community service group, Lambda Omicron Xi, opened my eyes to many social inequalities and gave me the passion and drive to seek out my position.

Q: What is something else that we should know about you?
A: I am food-obsessed. When I buy a new cookbook, I immediately sit down and read it cover to cover – ideally with Food Network running in the background. I grocery shop for fun, and my kitchen is definitely the most loved room in my apartment.

Please join us in welcoming Lauren, Stephen, and Renae!

Meet Ana de Alba: She broke our hearts in 3 minutes flat

Ana de Alba receiving the Opening Doors to Justice Award

And today’s guest blog from this award-winning champion for justice will break yours, too.

Introduction by Julia Wilson, Executive Director:  Just about one year ago, the OneJustice network gathered at our annual Opening Doors to Justice event to celebrate the accomplishments of our community.  A young woman took to the stage – and broke the hearts of the audience in just about 3 minutes flat.

That woman was Ana de Alba, and later this week she will receive the prestigious Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public from the California Young Lawyer’s Association.  And boy, does she deserve it.  We are so proud that she is part of the OneJustice network, and I will be in the audience next Friday night, cheering with all my heart and soul as she again takes the stage. Ana graciously agreed to provide a guest blog this week, revisiting her remarks from our stage one year ago.  I know they will inspire you as they have inspired us!

Guest Blog: Ana de Alba, Lang Richert & Patch, Fresno

Ana de Alba resolved she would return to the Central Valley as an attorney and to make the legal system accessible to all.

I am honored to stand before you tonight as a recipient of an “Opening Doors to Justice” award. What this award means to me can be best explained by sharing a story about a field worker from the Central Valley who was in desperate need of legal services.

This particular individual lived in one of the small communities that dot highway 99. She and a crew of about 5 other women spent an entire summer working on a cucumber farm without getting paid. Although this woman, who was a bit braver and more outgoing than the others, demanded payment on their behalf, she was always told that they would get paid “next week.” “Next week” never came.

They were upset, and rightfully so, each of them had young children to support and not only had they provided free labor for an entire summer, they had also paid for childcare, paid for a ride to and from the farm which was located 45 miles from their home, and in the end, they came home with nothing. They were ashamed and felt that they had let their families down.

Ana, shown here at 3 years old, grew up in a small town in the Central Valley.

Encouraged by her children to “fight this,” this woman called an attorney she randomly selected from the yellow pages who was kind enough to tell her that to seek redress she need only go to the Labor Commissioner. When she discovered, however, that the Labor Commissioner was located in Fresno, she was absolutely devastated. Fresno was over 60 miles from her home and filled with freeways and highways that she felt unable to drive on. Worse still, there was no way to get there using public transportation. In the end, none of these women sought out justice because it was simply too inaccessible to them.

This woman was my mother and events like these were all too common in my life. On the day I left Dos Palos to attend UC Berkeley I promised that little girl who heard her mother crying inconsolably in the bathroom that I would return to the Valley as an attorney. I would find a way to make the legal system more accessible so that justice would really be “a right for all.”

Thank you OneJustice for recognizing my efforts and for the great work you do throughout the state, thank you to my firm Lang, Richert & Patch for supporting me and allowing me to use their goodwill in our local legal community to promote pro bono, thank you Central California Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance for being at the front lines of these struggles, and thank you to my husband, daughter, parents, and siblings for giving me strength and always reminding me that the law really is a powerful tool for social change.

What helps keep children healthy? Access to an attorney!

An apple a day?  What really helps keep low-income children healthy is access to medical care – and that often takes access to an attorney!

Children's Health DayIn theory, our state’s low-income children should all have access to health care through a complex array of state and private health programs.  To be able to take their children to the doctor, parents frequently have to navigate the complicated map of Medi-Cal, AIM, Healthy Families, CHDP (Children’s Health & Disability Prevention) and privately available coverage. But, as a recent article in the New York Times Parenting blog so aptly states, enrolling in these programs can be like clearing a jungle of red tape with a weed wacker! (“When Parents Can’t Enroll in Medicaid, Children Stay Uninsured,” by Bryce Covert, 9/26/12).

For many families, just figuring out which program to apply for  – or how it interacts with privately available health insurance – is more complicated than filling out annual IRS tax return forms (and we all know how much fun those forms are!).  In some families, older and younger children are actually eligible for different health programs – with different types of access to medical care.  And if the parents’ income changes, children may have to transition from one health program to another.  Applying for these programs thrusts parents into a sometimes bizarre world of legal eligibility, federal and state regulations, confusing formulas for counting families’ income, and stacks and stacks of paperwork to fill out.  This maze of bureaucracy sadly leads to some children being incorrectly denied access to health insurance programs for which they are actually eligible – preventing them from accessing doctor appointments, medical treatment, and more.

Nonprofit legal organizations and their attorneys can be the weed wackers that cut through red tape and increase children’s access to health care.

And even if parents are able to thread the application needles and obtain health coverage for their children, sometimes it is difficult to get the medical care prescribed by the doctor.  Both private and state health coverage programs have complicated review structures and just because a doctor writes a prescription for medicine, a piece of durable medical equipment, or speech or physical therapy is no guarantee that the health coverage program will actually approve – and provide – it.

This is where the lawyers come in.  Because these kids – and their families – face a sometimes overwhelming set of legal rules and regulations, lawyers are the ones who can serve as the weed wackers needed to cut through all the red tape.  When kids apply for a program and are denied, they have a right to appeal that decision – and that often takes a lawyer.  When a doctor prescribes a piece of medical equipment or a course of speech therapy that is denied by the health insurance plan, the family can appeal – and that often takes a lawyer.  Lawyers can be the ones who slice through the legal issues – allowing families and doctors to focus on what is most important – actually getting a child the treatment she needs.  In fact, there is a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that have formed the Health Consumer Alliance to focus on exactly that work – and their website, www.healthconsumer.org, has a wealth of resources for families.

The Medical-Legal Partnership for Children Team in Seattle combines medical and legal professionals.

Increasingly, doctors are also bringing lawyers into the medical system as team members in preventing children’s health problems. These Medical-Legal Partnerships bring nonprofit legal organizations and their attorneys into the hospitals and medical clinics to work side by side with the doctors, providing legal assistance to children and families that complements the medical treatment they need.  For example, when a little boy with life-threatening asthma comes to a clinic, the doctor can prescribe the various inhalers he needs.  But when that boy returns to his mold-infested apartment – his asthma is triggered once again.  In these Medical-Legal Partnerships, the doctor can make a same-day referral to the attorney (sitting in the next office over) who then gets to work on negotiating with the family’s landlord to correct the illegal mold problem.  The little boy ends up with a safe housing environment and the prescriptions – a preventative legal measure coupled with medical treatment.  California is home to many of these cutting-edge collaborations. Some of these programs have lawyers doing rounds with the medical teams, and some even train law and medical students on how to work together.  Can we actually imagine a day when doctors and lawyers think of themselves first as allies in improving children’s health, rather than as antagonists over medical malpractice and other legal issues?

Today – October 1st – is national Children’s Health Day.  Created in 1928 by President Calvin Coolidge to spark or increase people’s awareness of ways to minimize or alleviate health problems that children may face, the day focuses on a range of child health issues such as prenatal care, adolescent health, the impact of daycare on a child’s development, preventing injuries, healthy eating and lifestyle choices, and immunization.  As part of the annual presidential proclamation for the day, organizations interested in child welfare are invited to observe exercises to stimulate or increase people’s awareness of the need for a year-round program to protect and develop children’s health in the United States, and health professionals and health organizations across the United States take part in this day through various activities and events.

So what do we advocate for Children’s Health Day?  We say bring on the lawyers who will fight to get children on the health insurance programs they need, make sure the doctor’s plans for treatment are approved and become more than just a piece of paper, and who team up with medical professionals for a holistic approach to the complicated medical and legal causes for health problems.

And did you know we are Pinning?  Pinterest (a content sharing service that allows members to “pin” images, videos and other objects to an online scrapbook) is growing increasingly popular as the next social media site.  While most people use the visual bookmarking site to plan weddings, sketch out gardens, or share clothes, jewelry and other designs, nonprofits are starting to use the site to communicate their mission and share helpful links and resources – and so are we!  So in honor of Children’s Health Day, we created a board dedicated to helping families find the health coverage programs – and legal advocates – that their kids might need. Happy Pinning!

Tell us what you think – can you imagine a day when there is a lawyer assigned to every medical team to ensure a holistic approach to the legal barriers that cause health problems?

Tell us – who are your access to justice heroes?

Next month – October 2012 – has two big celebrations on the calendar — California Campaign for Justice month and National Celebrate Pro Bono Week (October 21 to 27).

There will be all kinds of special trainings and events around the state for both celebrations – and as we gear up at OneJustice for these national and statewide initiatives, we’re asking the Image of the justice league showing 5 super heroes, including superman and wonder womanOneJustice network to tell us – WHO IS YOUR ACCESS TO JUSTICE HERO?  Who would you recognize for her dedication to helping low-income communities resolve their pressing legal problems?  Whom should we be honoring for his work to remove barriers to justice?  Who are the heroes in the California legal services and pro bono delivery system – both the heralded and the unsung – who have inspired YOU to get or stay involved?  Who should OneJustice include in our version of the justice league?

Definition: Heroine/Hero:  a woman/man admired and emulated for her/his achievements and qualities; one who shows great courage.

So tell us – OneJustice network – send us in your access to justice hero stories by commenting on this blog, posting it on our facebook wall, emailing us – whatever works for you.  Please share with us your stories about the women and men who are admired for their achievements, qualities and great courage – and we’ll repost them here throughout the October celebrations.

Over the weekend, I was reflecting on this question while skimming through the news online – and I stumbled across a powerful opinion piece “I Was a Welfare Mother” by Larkin Warren in the NY Times Sunday Review.  As a single mom, with an ex-husband doing little to help, she decided to go to college and carve out a better life for her son.  Her parents, ex-Marines, didn’t have the resources to pay for college – and so she had to rely on grants, Section 8 housing, and ultimately welfare – to barely make ends meet.  She graduated from college – and 2 weeks later had a job and was off welfare.  Reading her powerful testimonial, I realized the people who are my access to justice heroes – the people who keep me focused on the goal of expanding our legal safety net – who are the reason why I have dedicated my legal career to the work of nonprofit legal organizations – they are my clients.

Joseph Campbell quote "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."I started my career with the incredible privilege of being a lawyer for families on welfare.  As an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the exciting challenge of implementing my very own project, I graduated from law school at the time that welfare reform was being implemented.  I thought that welfare-to-work programs offered some promise for families like the one described by the author – families who had hit hard times, single moms striving to get an education and move into the workforce, or parents out of work and facing barriers as they searched for the next job.  But I was very worried about the families where the parent had a disability, or had responsibility for caring for a member of a family with a disability – and I wanted to make sure that welfare-to-work programs also could be made to work for a single-mom also caring for her aging mom with dementia.  For the young dad with an undiagnosed learning disability.   For the homeless family trying to care for their preschooler with autism while living in their car.

So I spent three years working with these families – serving as their lawyer – to make sure that their welfare-to-work plan truly met their needs, got them an education, and accommodated their disability.  They included people like Mr. Nguyen, who was a brilliant computer science student at a community college while caring for his five children and his wife who had serious mobility and intellectual impairments after her stroke.  We had to appeal the welfare department’s denial of his request to stay in school as his work plan – and won because of the written statements provided by all of his professors about his ability to transfer to a four-year college and add significantly to the work of Silicon Valley.  And people like Mrs. Ramirez, who suffered an illegal eviction and ended up homeless – while working the night shift at a grocery store to care for her 5-year-old son with visual disabilities.  Together, she and I fought for and won a grant of emergency housing so that the doctors could perform the surgery her son needed.

I learned so much from these families.  I saw determination and hard work in action.  I experienced humility and hope.  And I learned a lot about focus, sacrifice, parenting, and Maya Angelou quote "I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people."courage.  I am a better person for having the honor of working with them – and I will remember them for the rest of my life.  They are the reason I go to work each day driven to bring more justice into the world, to engage more lawyers and law students in volunteer work, and to advocate for more funding for nonprofit legal organizations.   I hold them all in my heart still today, and they are my heroes.

Because as Larkin Warren writes so powerfully – “Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?”

We should all be shocked that so many in our society must live – drowning – for years.  And we should all be just a little more decent.

Happy Constitution & Citizenship Day! Exercise your right to vote in the Chase Community Giving program.

Did you know that today is national U.S. Constitution Day and Citizenship Day?  After doing some research, the OneJustice team learned that this holiday is observed each year on September 17 to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”  In 2010, over 700,000 petitions were filed with the federal government by individuals seeking to become U.S. citizens.  For many, citizenship is an important step for civic engagement – including the right to vote in elections, hold public office, and also access government jobs or some college scholarships or federal grants.  And, of course, the topic of immigration more broadly – and creating a path to citizenship – is particularly significant these days due to this summer’s announcement by President Obama that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would not deport certain DREAM Act–eligible undocumented youth. Under a special directive, these youth will be given temporary relief called “deferred action.”  (For a great FAQ on Deferred Action created by the National Immigration Law Center, click here).

The network of 100+ legal  nonprofit organizations provides critically important legal assistance to residents of California seeking to become U.S. citizens, through a process called “naturalization.”  OneJustice’s website for the public – www.LawHelpCalifornia.org – has a great list of free resources giving more information about the path to citizenship and immigration topics more broadly.  However, the demand for legal advice about citizenship and help submitting the appropriate forms far outstrips the services that are available.  For example, free legal services providers in Northern California currently have the capacity to serve less than 8% of the estimated 99,000 low-income, citizenship-eligible residents.  Immigration services are particularly scarce in rural areas of the state, as many of the legal nonprofit organizations that provide legal help with naturalization are located in urban areas.

OneJustice has been partnering with the rural nonprofits in its network to bring free legal help on naturalization to low-income, rural Californians.  Last October, OneJustice recruited, trained, and coordinated law students from University of San Francisco and Golden Gate University to set up a free naturalization clinic in Fresno. Partnering with nonprofits in our network – including Asian Pacific Alliance Law Center, Central California Legal Services, and California Rural Legal Assistance, OneJustice’s volunteers helped 25 legal permanent residents complete and file applications for citizenship.  Then again, just this past April, OneJustice loaded up the Justice Bus with law student volunteers from Golden Gate University to travel to Gilroy, California.  By partnering with the local office of Catholic Charities, these law student volunteers were able to help 31 clients complete and file their application to become U.S. citizens.

For these Californians, filing the correct legal paperwork to take the first step toward citizenship was a powerful, meaningful moment.  Everyone in OneJustice’s network was involved in making this possible – our partner law schools, the on-the-ground nonprofits, the volunteers, and all of our donors who give so generously.

But more help is needed – other aspiring citizens have no access to the legal advice and help needed to take this first step – but you can help!

OneJustice is in the running for a $10,000 grant through the Chase Community Giving program.  But time is running out!  VOTING CLOSES THIS WEDNESDAY – and if you vote for us, we will use 100% of the grant to expand the Justice Bus trips providing immigration assistance in 2013.

Please vote today!

If you are on facebookyou can vote here.

If you are a Chase customer, you can vote through their online banking system here.

Thank you for your votes – and for supporting more aspiring citizens!

Happy Grandparents Day – and let’s not forget older Californians in need

Justice bus volunteer with senior client

OneJustice volunteers travel hours by bus to meet the legal needs of rural senior citizens.

Today on National Grandparents Day I count myself lucky to be able to celebrate my amazing grandmother, who – at 101 years old – has seen tremendous changes in our society and world.  I also count myself lucky to live close enough to be able to spend time with her – as do my teenaged daughters.

The origins of National Grandparents Day started in 1970 with Marian McQuade, a housewife in West Virginia.  She hoped to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide.  She also championed the cause of the lonely elderly living in nursing homes.  After years of advocacy, in 1978 a congressional resolution declaring National Grandparents Day as the first Sunday after Labor Day was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  Today, while I honor the many ways that my grandmother has influenced my life, I will also be thinking about the many older Californians who have not been as fortunate.

Over 390,000 Californians over the age of 65 live below the federal poverty levelMany of these seniors face a barrage of legal issues relating to access to health care, economic assistance benefits, housing, and food.  They also have legal needs relating to consumer debt issues, advanced planning and wills, residential and nursing home care, and caregivers issues – whether they are raising grandchildren or caring for an aging partner or spouse. In fact, more than 116,000 people over 60 in California have primary responsibility for the care of their minor grandchildren.  So on grandparents day, these older Californians are actually still handling the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting.

Volunteer helping a senior client

Justice Bus Trips bring volunteers to help seniors living in rural areas.

A 2011 study by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) found that county agencies serving seniors reported that the most serious challenges to the safety and well-being of seniors are primarily legal issues, including: elder abuse (including consumer fraud targeting seniors), housing issues (including discrimination, home repair, affordable housing), and bankruptcy/debt.  Elders who are LGBTQ, have limited English proficiency (LEP), or are low-income are particularly vulnerable and in need of legal assistance.  Sadly, the LAAC study also reported that older Californians frequently are not aware that free legal help may be available to them and may wait to consult an attorney until their situation has become a crisis.  OneJustice supports a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that provide critically important legal help to more than 35,000 low-income and vulnerable seniors each year.  

Older Californians living in rural areas face unique barriers to accessing the legal help they need.  “Growing old has never been easy.  The difficulties are especially pronounced in rural America because, census data shows, the country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee.  The elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs.” (The New York Times, For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times are distinctly Harder, December 10, 2009.) Despite the significant need, rural seniors have unique difficulties in finding help due to a lack of access to transportation, computer or internet access, language barriers, and geographic isolation.   In addition, due to limited resources, the few legal services organizations that exist to serve rural parts of the state are responsible for large geographic regions without sufficient staff.

Pinterest logo

Check out our Pinterest page for boards with resources on topics like guardianships, elder abuse, and simple estate planning.

This is why so many of our Justice Bus trips focus on meeting the legal needs of older Californians living in rural and isolated areas.  Our volunteer attorneys and law students travel hours by bus to set up traveling free legal clinics at senior centers, near medical clinics, in libraries and churches, and at senior assisted living facilities.  These volunteers work with local nonprofits in our network to bring life-saving legal help directly to seniors in need.  In isolated areas of counties like Napa, Tulare, and Mariposa, these Justice Bus clinics are often the only way older residents will have any access to legal assistance.  This is also why we created the website LawHelpCalifornia.org and our Pinterest page to post free downloadable resources on legal topics like guardianship, advanced health care directives and simple wills, and elder abuse.

The official flower of Grandparents Day is forget-me-not. On this day when we celebrate the heritage and wisdom of our grandparents, let us also remember the hundreds of thousands of older Californians who are alone today – alone facing pressing legal problems relating to basic life necessities.  By continuing to work together, we can build the resources needed to help them solve their legal problems.

What is YOUR favorite memory of time spent with a grandparent, or the most rewarding experience you have had helping a senior citizen?

To all who labor to provide legal services to the poor – thank you!

Labor Day was created to recognize Americans workers and their many contributions to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.   It is particularly poignant in this economy, as hundreds of thousands of Americans seek work, and the jobless rate continues to climb.  In addition, the majority (63.4%) of low-income Californians are working and still cannot pull their families above the poverty line.  In 38.3% of poor families, a family member is working full-time, and in another 25.1% someone is working part-time. Workforce participation among the poor is higher in California than in the rest of the nation.

New York Labor Day Parade image

Labor Day Parade, New York (1882)

On this day when our country celebrates the American labor movement and a wide variety of workers, here at OneJustice we honor the work of a particular sector – the staff and volunteers at the almost 100 legal nonprofit organizations in California that seek to bring a little more justice into the world.

OneJustice supports a network of just under 100 nonprofit legal organizations which employ around 1,700 workers and under 800 attorneys.  This network takes on the Herculean task of trying to meet the legal needs of the over 8 million low-income Californians facing legal barriers to basic life necessities.  Clean water.  Food.  Health care.  Employment.  Education.  The simple math adds up to 10,000 eligible clients facing pressing legal issues for every staff attorney.  Clearly, the task is too big to be taken on alone.

That is why OneJustice also celebrates the hard work and compassion of the hundreds of volunteer attorneys who – in addition to their busy practices in the private sector – volunteer with these nonprofits to help expand the legal services for the poor.  These dedicated volunteers show up at night and on the weekends – they staff free legal clinics and represent low-income individuals in court – they make grandparents into legal guardians, combat identify theft, make sure seniors get their medicines, and empower survivors of domestic violence to move forward.  Sometimes they even board buses and travel for hours to provide free legal help to those in isolated and rural areas.

OneJustice Volunteers Help Low-Income Californians

Like the poet Marge Piercy, at OneJustice we love “people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

So – to everyone who strains to bring justice into the world, who does what has to be done to expand legal help for the poor, who labors to make the world just a little fairer – we thank you!

Now that you know who OneJustice celebrated today – who do YOU honor on Labor Day?

Celebrating a Legacy by Taking Action

A Day of Celebration and a Day of Action – by Candace Chen, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at OneJustice

UC Davis law students providing free legal help to seniors, supervised by attorneys from Legal Aid of Napa Valley

César Chávez left a legacy as an educator and civil rights leader. Each year, Californians commemorate and celebrate his legacy on César Chávez Day by promoting a day of service in honor of his life and work. Rather than enjoy a rare day off from law school, a group of law students from the University of California, Davis School of Law volunteered with OneJustice’s Justice Bus Project at two estate planning clinics for seniors on March 30, 2012. These incredibly dedicated law students traveled an hour and a half and weathered the rain in order to help Legal Aid of Napa Valley provide free legal services to low-income seniors living in mobile home parks in Calistoga.

That’s right, I said mobile home parks in Calistoga. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I have visited Calistoga countless times and never once did I imagine, let alone see, there were mobile home parks in Calistoga. When I hear the name Calistoga, I immediately think of wine county, quaint Victorian bed and breakfast inns, and romantic spa getaway. When I travel down Lincoln Street, the main road in and out of Calistoga, I never saw even a shadow of the mobile home parks.

Like so many marginalized communities, the residents of these mobile home parks are kept hidden from most people visiting Calistoga.

Kristi Lesnewich, Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Aid of Napa Valley, talked to the students about the history of the two mobile home parks and the impact the law students would make in helping to provide access to legal services in these marginalized communities. The students met with 14 seniors and helped them prepare a number of estate planning related documents, including Advance Health Care Directives, Power of Attorney of Finance (“POA”), and simple wills.

Students from UC Davis School of Law celebrate Cesar Chavez’s legacy by moving into action and providing free legal help to low-income seniors.

Many of the seniors commented on how nice it was to know that young people cared about them and their issues. One client wrote, “I believe that this [clinic] has prepared me for making proper decision regarding end of life events. This will save hardship on relatives left behind and now I can face the future securely. Thank you for having students who are kind and knowledgeable in the law that affects seniors. I almost died three years ago in a car accident and had no idea how to pursue health directive, POA, or will. Now I feel educated….Thank you!”

Despite the wet weather, the law students and seniors left the clinic smiling. The Justice Bus brings legal solutions by eliminating geographic barriers to justice – creating help where there were only problems – just as the normally dry golden hills of California transform into lush green fields after a few days of rain.

Thinking about Women and Legal Services (during Women’s History Month)

Barbara, Justice Bus ClientMarch is Women’s History Month – when we celebrate the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

So at OneJustice we’ve been pondering the intersection of women – both clients and attorneys who are women – and the system that provides legal help to low-income and other underserved Californians.  Each year, the almost 100 legal nonprofit organizations in California provide legal assistance to approximately 270,000 individuals, families, children, and seniors facing pressing legal problems relating to basic human needs.  Hunger.  Safety.  Housing.  These services are focused on those living at or below 125% of the federal poverty level (for example, the limit for a family of three is an annual income of $23,862 or less).

Poverty in California is higher among women (at 16%), than among men (at 14%), and highest among children, as a staggering 21% of California’s children live in poverty.  Nationally, the most recent census data showed more than 16.4 million women living in poverty in 2009, the largest number since the Census began collecting this data in 1966.  A study of prevalence of hunger among California women found that 22 percent do not have secure access to food.

In that larger context of women and poverty, California’s nonprofit legal organizations provided services to over 151,000 low-income women in 2010 (compared to just over 106,000 men). These are women like Barbara, shown above, who came to a Justice Bus legal clinic in her small, isolated coastal town.  Women who are grandmothers needing legal guardianship of their grandchildren.  Mothers fighting for medical services for their children with significant health needs.  Teenagers experiencing dating violence.  These are women who are seeking help in the face of overwhelming factors that tell them to give up.  It is shameful that our legal services delivery system is so underfunded that we can only provide this life-changing assistance to one-third of those in need.

At the same time, the attorneys working at these legal nonprofit organizations are increasingly women.  A 2010 report by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) on Retention & Recruitment in legal services nonprofits found that two-thirds (67 percent) of the legal services attorneys are female; in contrast, during that same time period, only 34% of California State Bar Members were women. In 1878, Clara Shortridge Foltz began her struggle to become California’s first woman lawyer, and now, 134 years later, approximately 50% of law school graduates are women.  The women working at nonprofit legal organizations graduate from law school with overwhelming debt burden, and nevertheless carve a career path in the nonprofit sector, using their legal skills and expertise to help clients who are women seeking to eliminate barriers to justice in their own lives.   Those woman client/woman attorney partnerships are pretty powerful – and they are part of what we should be celebrating this month.