By Jane Kelleher, Miriam Elisa Hasbún & Yandy Reyes (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
How can law students, legal aid, and willing donors best serve impoverished communities? UConn Law and Connecticut’s Greater Hartford Legal Aid (GHLA) have been working together to answer that question.
The result of their efforts? The new “Justice in Our Community” Fellowship program. Law student fellows— with external support from legal aid lawyers—worked on-site in the heavily trafficked waiting room of a health center located in a high-poverty area. The results were fantastic: Fellows engaged with clients who otherwise would not have had access to lawyers, triaged intervention as needed, and provided direct assistance to people who were struggling to communicate through language and other bureaucratic barriers. The program provided donors with a direct way to invest in future legal aid attorneys and to assist an ailing community. Most importantly, the program conveyed to that community a presence that both honored them and afforded them the dignity of communication in a setting of their choosing.
In the hope that others will replicate the program, this article describes the Justice in Our Community Fellowship—a joint effort to assist and empower people living in Connecticut’s lowest-income neighborhood, Hartford’s North End.
In early 2015, the Auerbach Schiro Foundation approached UConn Law with a goal in mind: they wanted to provide economically disadvantaged people in Hartford’s North End with easy access to legal information and assistance. GHLA had an idea that could further this goal: with the donors’ contribution, GHLA would provide stipends for three law-student fellows to run a legal information and outreach table on the organization’s behalf. GHLA would place the Fellows at Community Health Services (CHS), a federally-qualified health center located in the heart of the community the donors wanted to reach. For a client community with limited access to reliable transportation, this location was key.
UConn Law helped develop the project, and students, especially those interested in public interest work, jumped at the chance to apply for paid legal experience.
Each Fellow would spend six hours per week conducting outreach at CHS, and six hours per week at the GHLA office, helping with research projects and following up with people they met in the community. The students were first trained in substantive law, legal ethics, confidentiality, and identifying issues the Fellows might encounter. As the year progressed, Fellows received additional substantive trainings in legal issues that commonly were mentioned at CHS. Their knowledge grew as the term progressed, but they also worked in connection with a reliable support network: when they needed to, they would send an email to GHLS staff and get an almost-immediate response. The key was that the Fellows were never left on their own: they were serving as the face of GHLA in the community, and they had GHLA’s entire staff behind them.
At first, “outreach” was ambiguous: having a regular arm in the community was new to everyone involved, and it was hard to know if the goals would match the reality at CHS. Over time, however, “outreach” developed into a well-established system for reaching potential clients and community members. Equipped with a GHLA poster and legal-information pamphlets, the Fellows worked in pairs at a table in the highly-trafficked CHS lobby every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon. A GHLA attorney supervised and assisted once a week. The consistency of this approach proved to be extremely valuable in forming relationships with members of the community.
Interaction with Client Community
Profile of Client Community and Scope of Services
Clients ranged in age from early twenties to late sixties. The majority of the community members were Latino or African-American, and most interactions were in English or a combination of Spanish and English. Fellows spoke to more female identified community members than male identified members. Many members of the community received government assistance such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security Disability (SSD), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Cash Assistance for Families, and HUSKY Healthcare. A majority of the Fellows’ interactions were with people who needed help with housing, applying for benefits, navigating a domestic abuse situation or divorce, or obtaining a pardon.
Pardons, for example, were an important area because community members mentioned difficulties stemming from their criminal records more than any other legal issue. Minor offenses often prevented them from obtaining work or housing. Some had lost their jobs after their employer found out that the worker did not disclose their record on their job application. The Fellows’ “Is Your Criminal Record Keeping You From Finding Work?” pamphlet probably drew more people to the outreach table than any other sign, poster, or pamphlet. It was easy to see how difficulty finding work or a home could lead to recidivism in people who genuinely wanted to make a positive change. Once referred by the fellows, GHLA was able to help several people navigate the rigorous pardons process and to set applicants’ expectations as to whether they were likely to receive a pardon.
Fellows often alerted community members to rights or legal issues that they were not aware they had. For example, when a woman told the Fellows that a neighbor’s fire had rendered her apartment uninhabitable, the fellows told her about relocation assistance and connected her with the agency that could help. When a homeless man pulled a pile of papers out of his backpack and laid them on the outreach table, the fellows identified a SNAP cut-off notice and helped him re-apply. When a regular visitor mentioned that he needed help obtaining a divorce, the fellows connected him with a divorce clinic and helped him fill out the necessary paperwork.
Some of the fellows’ outreach work was not necessarily “legal,” but gave the fellows an opportunity to help people navigate difficult systems. For example, a Bengali family asked the Fellows for help getting Medicaid for their young daughters. Calling Access Health Connecticut (AHCT) was overwhelming for them—especially after an AHCT representative made a comment about their accents. The fellows spoke with AHCT on the family’s behalf, relaying the representative’s questions and the family’s answers. It was a long process, but it was worth it: the daughters were insured, and the family was appreciative, kind, and gracious. Another day, a woman asked for help changing information on her marriage license. After some quick research online, the Fellows found out what she needed to do and wrote out instructions. She had spent years attempting to change the license but was unable to navigate the process on her own, so she was very appreciative when the Fellows gave her a step-by-step guide.
Fellows developed lasting relationships with community members, as well. One man was applying to have his SSI reinstated after a recent period of incarceration. He stopped by every few weeks to update the fellows on his application and to ask quick questions when he had trouble reaching GHLA. He faced several challenges—he struggled to find housing because of his record, and he couldn’t work because of his disability—but he always had a huge smile on his face. He repeatedly expressed appreciation for GHLA being out in the community, and on the fellows’ last day, he expressed sincere regret that their term was coming to an end. He told the fellows that there were days where he felt like giving up, but when he visited GHLA’s outreach table it gave him the will to keep trying.
On a “typical” day at CHS, the fellows would interact with five to fifteen people. It was never easy to predict whether a given day would be busy: the number of visitors varied based on the weather, other events being held at CHS, the day of the week, the table’s location, and the signs posted by fellows. The length of interactions ranged from a few minutes to an hour. Some people stopped by the table just to say hello, and some stopped to take legal information pamphlets. Sometimes, people picked up pamphlets and returned later to report that they had read through the information and wanted to discuss a legal issue. Others sat down immediately, sharing stories about current legal troubles or about legal needs that had gone unmet in the past—usually because they lacked access to an attorney.
Longer conversations often turned into an intake or a Community Inquiry. Intakes, which are brief screening interviews, were conducted when an individual seemed to qualify for full representation by a GHLA attorney. Community Inquiries, by contrast, were structured conversations in which Fellows asked a set of open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about something good going on in your life right now?” The Community Inquiry was intended to help GHLA get a feel for what was happening in the community, and to find out whether there were common problems that GHLA wasn’t yet addressing. Fellows obtained participants’ informed consent and emphasized that responses were confidential. Fellows also communicated to participants that their responses were in no way connected to the assistance they would receive from GHLA. Conversations would last anywhere from five minutes to an hour, and Fellows tried to record responses exactly how they were spoken. After an intake or inquiry, the potential client would leave with a GHLA business card, the fellows’ contact information, and a thank you card if they had completed the community inquiry.
Interacting with the Client Community: Ground-rules
Ground-rules were established as the year progressed and changed to fit the Fellows’ and GHLA’s needs. They are as follows:
- Give legal information, not legal advice. Law student Fellows were not attorneys and therefore were prohibited from advising clients
- Listen. The client community has a history of being ignored or dismissed by those in positions of power. For many this was an opportunity to have someone take them seriously and listen to their whole story. Fellows provided help when they could and an outlet for when they could not.
- Identify the legal issues. Figure out how GHLA or other resources could best serve each person. To be both mindful of client’s time and the Fellows’ own limited availability, Fellows learned how to respectfully direct the conversation and focus on how to help the client if a legal remedy was available. If Fellows could not refer back to GHLA, they would refer to other community resources.
- Respect. Fellows were always mindful to represent themselves, GHLA, and the Law School in a professional manner while at CHS. They were building an image not only for GHLA but also for attorneys. They were approachable, available, and excited to learn from community members. If someone mentioned a problem, Fellows placed importance on his or her concern no matter what it was.
- Take notes and track. Because it was a pilot year, Fellows made things up as they went. They created an excel sheet that continued to grow as the year progressed. Originally, it included only information from those individuals who had filled out an intake form. Eventually it included community stories, patterns, and updates on clients.
- Be honest. If Fellows were unable to resolve the issue at the table or the issue fell outside of GHLA’s scope, they told the client. This frustrated some people, but most were grateful that the Fellows had tried to help in the first place. Usually, when the individual did approach the table, Fellows were able to find an outlet or resource that could help.
- Follow-up. The Fellows tried their best to follow up with clients, either by asking them to return on another day or by contacting them directly by phone. Many clients did not have emails or access to a computer, so follow-up occurred mainly by phone. This also posed a problem because many clients had phone plans with limited minutes making it hard to get ahold of a client whose minutes had expired. When telephone calls failed Fellows turned to sending letters in the mail. This also could be a challenge because some clients were in between homes and did not have permanent addresses.
- Tracking. Fellows maintained a comprehensive list of potential clients so they could keep track of when a secretary had made contact with an individual, or that an attorney had communicated the advice sought. Fellows also noted when they were unable to reach an individual.
To be sure, everyone involved hoped that the fellowship program would benefit the North End community. By the end of the year, it seemed that goal had been accomplished. Clients knew they could come to the outreach table if they couldn’t make it to GHLA’s office, or if they were having a hard time reaching the office by phone. For many clients, face-to-face interaction was significantly less overwhelming than other forms of communication—some clients told the fellows that they relied on the outreach table as their primary method of communication with GHLA. Many people commented that it was great to see GHLA out in the community. Others told the fellows that they had been meaning to call GHLA about a legal issue for months, and seeing the GHLA table at CHS made it easier for them to get help. Many people told the fellows that, regardless of whether GHLA was able to help them with their legal problem, just having been listened to made them feel better.
GHLA benefited from the program, as well. Because of the donors’ generosity, GHLA was able to hire these three Fellows who could afford to devote substantial time to the community and start this program without taking time away from an already-busy staff attorney. GHLA learned more about the community it serves, which helped it identify issues and trends that were not always making it through the front door. The organization’s reputation, already well-established and positive, was arguably improved— many people stated that it was nice to see the organization reaching out to the community. Many community members saw GHLA as more approachable, because they had a way to interact with the organization on their own terms.
Community Health Services, the Fellows’ gracious and accommodating host, benefited from the program as well. CHS treats patients holistically; they primarily offer medical services, but also offer psychiatric help, provide clothing, and give out food on a weekly basis. CHS is also a warm place to spend the day for those with nowhere else to go. CHS staff members commented that they were happy to have somewhere to send patients who mentioned legal issues over the course of their appointments.
Finally, the students received immeasurable benefits from serving as Fellows. They participated in direct client interaction with a very diverse population, which helped them develop interview skills. They learned how to budget their time and attention in a setting that was often fast-paced and high-stress. Fellows had the chance to discuss legal issues with attorneys at the office, and to learn about core legal issues such as housing, benefits, and family law. The Fellows also had a chance to practice—or learn—Spanish. Most importantly, the Fellows had the chance to meet and learn from people facing tremendous legal barriers, and to help people while they themselves grew as students. The experience will surely serve them well as they move forward with their legal careers.
Tom Angotti (firstname.lastname@example.org), is Professor of Urban Policy & Planning at Hunter College, City University of New York and editor with Sylvia Morse of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement & City Planning in New York City (UR Books, 2016). This article is based on Zoned Out! Direct quotes are in italics.