Trump wants to cut off poor people’s legal lifeline

Without legal aid, there will be little assistance for those facing eviction, domestic violence, or huge amounts of debt.

Jaqueline Barber in the home that was threatened with eviction in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
Jaqueline Barber in the home that was threatened with eviction in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

It was right around Christmas last year when Michael Esnault got the news: he had two months to move out of the affordable apartment in New Orleans he’s lived in for six years and find another place to live.

But Esnault, a 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran who suffers from PTSD, knew he wouldn’t be able to find a new place on his own. “I was going to be out on the street. I didn’t have no money to move,” he said. “This is something that just came out of the blue.”

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It wasn’t just him, either. Fifty-three other low-income families were facing the same fate. “This is very stressful,” he said. “This is taking years off our life.”

“I knew I needed help,” he said.

Esnault decided to do something about it. So he marched over to the offices of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a civil legal aid organization, and spoke with Equal Justice Works fellow Hannah Adams. She took his case.

“I tell you what, she was aggressive from the get go,” he said.

When Adams began digging into the situation, she discovered that the majority of people being evicted had disabilities, which raised concerns about housing discrimination. It also appeared the building’s owner might have been running afoul of requirements stipulated in the tax exempt bonds that were issued to build it 15 years ago.

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So Adams got the city involved and the two parties sent a demand letter. They were eventually able to reach a deal with the owner that will not just give Esnault and the other low-income tenants until October 31 of this year to move, but also $1,500 they can use toward moving expenses. A counselor will be brought on site to help them find new housing.

“I would be on the street, and so would many others.”

And thanks to their organizing and the media attention it drew, another building with some units reserved for low- and moderate-income tenants reached out. Esnault and some of his neighbors will soon move in.

“If it weren’t for Hannah, that wouldn’t have happened,” Esnault said. “If it weren’t for Hannah and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services we wouldn’t have had no place. That’s an awful thing to think.”

“I thank god for Hannah and her organization,” he added. “Baby, without that I tell you what, I would be on the street, and so would many others.”

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But the work of legal aid organizations like Adams’s is at risk. They rely, to varying extents, on federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation. The LSC is one of the 78 federal government programs that President Donald Trump has singled out for complete elimination in his preliminary budget outline.

Funding the LSC has long been bipartisan. The last time it faced a serious attack was when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House in the 90s. “There has not been such a threat in the last 20 years,” said Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice.

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services’s largest source of funding comes from the Legal Services Corporation. Without it, the organization would barely be able to function.

“If we had our resources cut, we would not have been able to take this case, I can tell you right now,” Adams said, referring to Esnault and his neighbors. “That would be 53 households that would probably be out on the street right now if we didn’t have access to funding from the Legal Services Corporation.”

Everything would have to be cut back. The organization is already stretched very thin — in the housing division that Adams works in, there are about four and a half attorneys serving all of the southern part of Louisiana, including New Orleans’s 389,600 residents. There is no other legal aid organization to turn to, and private attorneys usually won’t take these kinds of cases. Anyone of limited means in the region who needs help in eviction court, getting public housing assistance, or forcing landlords to do repairs is on their own if they can’t get served by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

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If forced to make do with even less funding, all of that would be scaled back. The organization would likely have to narrow the guidelines for what cases it can take, focusing only on the emergencies, and therefore reject far more people in need. It wouldn’t just be housing matters that would suffer: the organization also takes on cases of domestic violence, wage theft, public benefits claims, and family matters. “Everyone else would be left without their own access to assistance,” Adams said.

“I shudder to imagine what would happen if we lost that major source of funding,” she added. “A lot of people would suffer.”

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services’s reliance on federal funding is typical of the 133 legal aid programs serving low-income people across the country that get LSC money. “The federal dollars are really the backbone of the civil legal aid system across America,” Bergmark said. While states and other entities supplement the money, the federal funding makes up a large, important share. Other sources tend to fluctuate; legal aid programs can at least rely on a steady flow from the LSC.

With the LSC gone, different states would be impacted in different ways. In Alabama, for instance, 88 percent of programs’ funding comes from the LSC. In New York, by contrast, the share is less than 20 percent. Bergmark noted that the states that are less able to supplement the federal money “tend to be more conservative states and more Trump-supporting states.” Meanwhile, urban centers usually have more than one organization serving their residents; in rural areas, it’s typically just one, which would make the impact of a severe cut even larger. Revoking the money will end up disproportionately impacting Trump’s supporters.

“The federal dollars are really the backbone of the civil legal aid system across America.”

Without the money, each program would have to figure out how to keep serving its clients. “It would be up to each one to figure that out and figure out whether they could remain in existence,” Bergmark said.

Even if they didn’t close their doors, they would face choices similar to those that would confront Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. There would be “fewer women in domestic violence situation who get helped, fewer veterans get represented, fewer folks facing unlawful evictions get help,” Bergmark said.

While there is a right to legal counsel for those facing criminal court, there is no such guarantee for those in civil courts. But the issues are no less dire: they encompass custody battles, domestic violence restraining orders, fighting off eviction, and getting sued over debt. “Those are high-stakes situations,” Bergmark noted.

Despite the huge ramifications these outcomes can have on people’s lives, they often go without legal help. “The consequences are extreme,” Bergmark said, “and yet we…invest way too little in a solution that really ought to be there for everybody.” There are just not enough legal aid lawyers for everyone. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, 50 percent of low-income people who actually sought out legal aid assistance were turned away, or about 944,000 people. In more than three quarters of cases, at least one party — typically the defendant — is self-represented.

“It would be a catastrophe to have this central pillar of the system get knocked down,” she said.

Esnault is incredibly grateful for the assistance he got from Adams and her organization. But after his own ordeal, and hearing the news of the budget, he’s disappointed in one man: Donald Trump. “This is something that needs to be addressed,” he said.

“I voted for him,” he added. “But I’m sorry I did now.”