Constance Chandler and her five children would be living out of motel rooms if it weren’t for Bay Area Legal Aid attorney David Levin.
Levin has spent the past six years working at Bay Area Legal Aid, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit helping the San Francisco Bay Area’s poorest residents with housing, health care, domestic violence and public benefits. In February, he visited Contra Costa County Superior Court in Pittsburg, Calif., and negotiated with Chandler’s landlord to help her family stay in their rented home.
Chandler, a 41-year-old certified nursing assistant, had an emergency hysterectomy in December followed by a two-month disability leave. Within weeks her life went into a tailspin. Her disability checks took a couple of weeks to start coming in. With no money in the bank, she fell behind on her subsidized housing payments. She says she sent letters and made calls to the Housing Authority of Contra Costa County, but got no response. In the first week of February, the county sheriff stopped by her three-story house and posted a notice on the door: She and her children aged 9 to 18 had one week to move out.
“We were going to be split up because we didn’t have any place to go,” Chandler says. “Everybody said they can help you, but when it comes down to it, they say we couldn’t take everybody, so we were going to be split at motels,” Chandler said. “The only thing that kept my head on straight was that I had a job waiting on me and that legal aid was helping me.”
The day before the sheriff was scheduled to lock the family out of their home, Chandler reached Levin at Bay Area Legal Aid. “She came in as a walk-in” at the Bay Point office, Levin said. “It was an emergency situation. If we hadn’t been there that day, you would have wondered about what would’ve happened to them.” Levin said he helped Chandler work out a way to stay in the house and a plan for her to catch up on her rent. Chandler owes a total of about $5,000 in unpaid rent, late fees and court fees.
Bay Legal received on average 2,200 calls a month last year from poor residents like Chandler. Its 55 staff lawyers are able to provide at least some minimal assistance to about 1,400 of those callers, according to figures from its legal advice line database. Some callers, like Chandler, get a whole lot more.
About 100,000 of Contra Costa County’s 1 million residents live below the poverty level, Levin said. “We are most of the legal resources available for people facing housing problems,” said Levin, who spends about half his time helping people with eviction cases and the rest dealing with problems related to housing authorities and Section 8 programs. About half of Bay Area Legal Aid’s clients are disabled. “A lot of [the] cases we see are people falling through the last frayed strands of the safety net,” Levin said.
Executive Director Ramon Arias said Bay Legal had to lay off two attorneys and three staffers last year, the first time the organization had layoffs. And things are about to get more shaky. If Congress passes a bill calling for the elimination of about $70 million in federal funds, Bay Legal would be facing a cut of about $700,000 from this year’s budget, Arias said. That would mean the loss of about 10 lawyers by the end of the year. “Imagine any private law firm saying we’re going to lose 20% of our legal staff,” Arias said. “It is an absolute catastrophe.”
How that would affect client services remains to be seen, Arias said. “It’s hard to quantify how many people we’d have to deny services to if we lost 10 lawyers,” he said. “Based on my experience and our numbers of how many people we’ve helped, it’s in the hundreds of people we’d have to turn away.”
Arias is pegging the survival of his organization on the continued support of the legal profession, which he said hasn’t flagged throughout the recession even as various county and state funds have dwindled. But he worries about the bigger picture.
“We all know, particularly if you walk the sidewalks of San Francisco and other cities in the Bay Area, that there’s a homeless problem. We all know people go without medical care when they need it in the United States,” Arias said. “You go to the Third World and you see poverty that’s even more devastating. One reason that it isn’t more devastating in this country is that poor people here do have an avenue.”
Petra Pasternak is a reporter with The Recorder, an NLJ affiliate in San Francisco.