Clary Fitzpatrick was raising four grandchildren, caring for her bedridden daughter and facing the prospect that all of them could soon be on the street.

The 69-year-old retiree from Lauder­dale Lakes, Fla., had spent so much on medical expenses for her daughter that she fell two months behind on her rent. Fitzpatrick received an eviction letter last October. “I was passing by the legal aid building all the time,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I was too ashamed to go in and say, ‘Hey, I might be put out.’ ”

Fitzpatrick eventually contacted Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida in Plantation. All she wanted was help with her landlord, but Fitzpatrick ended up with help for her daughter, too.

Coast to Coast’s Senior Citizen Law Project provides assistance to Broward County, Fla., residents age 60 and up. The agency also has a public-benefits unit that helps low-income residents secure government benefits.

A retired hairdresser and mother of five, Fitzpatrick thought her child-rearing days were over, but those hectic times returned when her youngest daughter, Chalomar Williams, 37, contracted HIV. A series of serious illnesses ensued, and Fitzpatrick looked after her daughter’s children while Williams went from medical center to nursing home. The costs mounted.

“No one told her she could get assistance,” said Gladys Gerson, Fitzpatrick’s Coast to Coast attorney.

Gerson negotiated with Fitzpatrick’s landlord and called in another agency attorney, Laurie Yadoff of the public-benefits unit. “She was paying for transportation to get her daughter to doctors,” Yadoff said. “She doesn’t have to pay for that with Medicaid.”

Yadoff helped Fitzpatrick sort through the available public assistance programs. This included help from Project AIDS Care. Fitzpatrick no longer has to draw on her finances for medical expenses. But Gerson’s role was not over.

“After we settled the eviction case through a schedule of payments on the arrearages, the property manager tried to raise the rent by $75 a month,” Gerson said.

She explained that Fitzpatrick had a one-year lease that set her monthly rent at $850 through September 2011. But apartment complexes sometimes try to arbitrarily raise rents regardless of leases. Gerson had seen such behavior before and put a stop to the rent increase with a phone call.

Fitzpatrick continues looking after her grandchildren: a 7-year-old, two teenagers and a 22-year-old college student. Their mother has been improving.

Were it not for the help Fitzpatrick’s family received from Coast to Coast, agency spokeswoman Kathleen Thomsen said, the apartment would have been lost, the children would have been split up and Williams would have returned to a nursing home that had already given up on her.

Referring to attorneys Gerson and Yadoff, Thomsen said, “These two ladies were able to keep this family together.”

“It is people like Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Chalomar that I do this work for,” Yadoff said. “They never expect any entitlement. They are always trying to do things for themselves and not trying to access the system in the way it was available to them.”

Adolfo Pesquera is a reporter with The Daily Business Review, an NLJ affiliate in Miami. He can be contacted at