Bryan Bihl isn’t sure how legal aid attorney Stefanie Ebbens managed to solve his mounting financial problems, but he’s grateful. “I’d probably be out on the streets if not for her,” Bihl said of Ebbens, of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky who has been working since October to secure Social Security disability benefits for him and prevent foreclosure on his home.

Bihl, who lives in a log cabin in Burkesville, Ky., is one of the thousands of middle-class Americans who have fallen on hard times and now rely on free help through the country’s network of legal aid providers. Bihl’s odyssey from well-paid computer systems worker to recipient of free legal representation began in November 2008, when he was laid off from his job at the height of the financial crisis. Eight months later and still out of work, Bihl fell behind on his mortgage payments for his home, which he purchased in 2003 in part to be near his favorite fishing spot: Lake Cumberland.

“I owed about $100,000 on the house. It wasn’t a big monthly payment, but when you don’t have income, it doesn’t take long to eat up your savings,” he said.

For nearly a year and a half, Bihl tried unsuccessfully to secure a loan modification from his mortgage lender, only to be told that he didn’t qualify. In the meantime, he stopped making payments on the house on the advice of his lender.

With his savings depleted and foreclosure proceedings underway, Bihl collapsed on May 20, 2010 — his sister found him slumped at his kitchen table. He was flown by helicopter to the University of Louisville Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A surgeon removed the tumor and Bihl underwent radiation. He returned home two weeks later under doctor’s orders to take things easy for the next 20 months.

Unable to afford his $380-a-month medical insurance premium, Bihl had cancelled his policy several years before he was stricken. A local indigent medical care program paid the $120,000 bill for his brain surgery, but bills from specialists and labs are still piling up.

He applied for Social Security benefits soon after his hospital stay, but was denied in October. “They told me I could still do computer work,” he said. “There was no way I could do computer work. Computer programming and networking is intense work. I would get major headaches. My doctor doesn’t want me doing anything right now.”

REFERRED FOR LEGAL AID

Still at risk of losing his house, a friend referred Bihl to Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, where he connected with Ebbens, directing attorney in the organization’s Columbia, Ky., office. Ebbens negotiated with Bihl’s mortgage lender to hold the foreclosure proceedings in forbearance until June, when he can be re-evaluated for a loan modification. She also filed a reconsideration request for his application for disability benefits, citing similar cases in which benefits were approved.

That request, made in November, has received preliminary approval. The final step is for Social Security administrators in Atlanta to complete the necessary paperwork, Ebbens said. Both she and Bihl hope that the disability checks will start arriving in the next few months. That income should help Bihl obtain the home-loan modification he desperately needs, since his lack of income was always the sticking point in his earlier attempts to get a modification.

Bihl said he is amazed at how quickly Ebbens was able to get his multiplying problems under control, and that he never would have been able to afford to hire a private attorney.

Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky received $2.3 million in federal money this year through the Legal Services Corp. — more than half the organization’s $4.2 million budget, said interim Executive Director Jonathan Picklesimer. Grants, state court filing fees and money from Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) make up most of the remaining budget. The organization, which serves 37 Kentucky counties and handled more than 7,000 cases in 2010, is the largest legal aid provider in the state.

“We’re watching what’s happening in Washington with bated breath,” Picklesimer said, noting that the declines in IOLTA funding forced the organization to close one office in 2008. “If an 18% budget cut went through, we would lose over $400,000, and that would be absolutely devastating for us. Justice only works for people who can afford an attorney.”

Bihl counts himself among those who oppose cuts to the Legal Services Corp.’s funding. “Don’t do it, because there are so many people who need this,” he said. “I think the country would be in a much worse state if we don’t have these programs.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.