December 29, 2009

Legal services: expanding amidst recession

A recent Washington Post editorial described the challenges District residents face in finding legal help on a variety of issues, including securing food stamps. The editorial quotes a report by the DC Access to Justice Coalition that finds the recession to be severely impacting the civil legal services sector: "Programs report losing more than 25% in revenue and have shed approximately 12.5% of their lawyers and nearly 40% of non-lawyer staff, including paralegals, social workers, case managers and administrative support."

While there is definitely a scarcity of legal service providers for low-income Washingtonians, Bread for the City would like to note that we have recently expanded our capacity to provide legal assistance with public benefits.

For instance: Stacy Braverman joined our legal clinic in September, through an Equal Justice Works fellowship funded by the Sutherland law firm. She has been helping clients receive the appropriate level of food stamps and other public benefits, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), medical assistance, Interim Disability Assistance, and child care subsidies. Alongside Su Sie Ju and Allison Miles-Lee, Bread for the City staff attorneys who also work on these types of public benefits cases, Stacy has reviewed clients' case files, represented clients at fair hearings, accompanied them on visits to Income Maintenance Administration (IMA) service centers, and recovered thousands of dollars in benefits to which our clients are entitled.

To give you a sense of how this all works and why it's important, we asked Stacy to share a couple of stories:

After being homeless, Mr. L had found an apartment, was being treated for his disability, and was helping raise and support his son. The $16 a month in food stamps he received did not go far. Mr. L had money withheld from his disability check each month, and the IMA's rules on food stamp calculations did not cover his specific situation. In addition, IMA was not factoring the child support Mr. L paid into their determination of his food stamp benefit. We worked with IMA's policy analysts and with staff at Mr. L's service center to make sure they calculated his benefits properly, and now he will receive $84 each month. In the week before Christmas, Mr. L also received several hundred dollars in food stamps he had been entitled to but had never received.
After Ms. S lost her job, she was told, incorrectly, that she didn't qualify for TANF because one of her two children received disability benefits. Bread for the City's food program provided groceries, its social services program gave referrals for children's clothing, and our legal clinic spoke with several IMA supervisors and helped Ms. S advocate for herself at the service center. Her household now receives $270 a month in TANF, which provides a crucial safety net while she searches for employment.
Stacy is reaching out to BFC's other program areas, and to other service providers throughout D.C., in search of more people who may need advice or assistance on public benefits matters. She can be reached at (202) 386-7077 or

Thanks to Stacy and Allison Miles-Lee for assistance with this post.

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