We are delighted to introduce our 2017 summer intern, Jackie Rogers. Jackie is a rising senior in the Honors College at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. She is majoring in Political Science and Economics; serves as VP of the Young Democrats Club; and represented the state of Oregon in College Debate 2016. Last summer, Jackie interned at the U.S. Senate for Senator Ron Wyden. She's also interested in the legal system and how it can improve. At a recent conference, Jackie presented on inclusivity in Supreme Court decisions, focusing on cases that changed social, legal, and political status quo. And this fall she'll take the LSAT and apply to law school. Interning with us is another outgrowth of her interests in activism and the law. "Washington Council of Lawyers provides everything I wanted in a summer internship," said Jackie. "The organization works to ensure everyone, regardless of income, has access to our justice system. I look forward to learning about the legal profession and public-interest law." We're thrilled to welcome Jackie back to Washington, DC and to work with her this summer. And we can't wait to see what she does with her legal career!
The DC Bar Foundation recently announced the 2017 recipients of the Access to Justice Grants Program, which awards grants to DC-based organizations that provide free legal help to low-income DC residents. This year, over $4.5 million was awarded to more than thirty DC-based legal services providers, including more than $3 million in grant funding for providers assisting residents of underserved areas. In 2016, Access to Justice grantees served nearly 23,000 DC residents, 52 percent of whom live in Wards 7 and 8. In addition to the multiple legal services providers receiving grants to assist low-income and vulnerable citizens across DC, several grants will benefit East of the River residents directly. One new grantee for 2017, Tzedek DC, received funding to assist low-income DC residents in debt-related legal matters, including providing community outreach by partnering with the United Planning Organization in Ward 7. Bread for the City received continued funding for its community lawyering work at its offices on Good Hope Road SE. The project’s attorneys work directly with the community to help identify options to tackle issues affecting its residents and, when needed, provide substantial direct representation to the residents. The project focuses on affordable housing, housing conditions, and hiring practices. The grant awarded to Whitman-Walker Health will provide legal representation, counseling, and outreach to people living with HIV/AIDS and other low-income residents East of the River, through lawyers based at its Max Robinson Center in Southeast DC. Whitman-Walker offers free legal aid to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in DC, regardless of HIV status, and to health care patients regardless of sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity. Children’s Law Center received continued funding for its Healthy Together Medical-Legal Partnerships with Unity Healthcare’s Minnesota Avenue clinic in Northeast DC, and with clinics in Southeast DC. In this medical-legal collaboration, the lawyers provide services through the Unity Healthcare clinic and two Southeast clinics of the Children’s National Medical Center, working with families of CNMC patients to identify and resolve non-medical solutions to children’s health issues. Neighborhood Legal Services Program received continued funding to provide neighborhood-based legal aid in the areas of housing, family law, and public benefits through NLSP’s office Ward 7 on Polk Street NE, which will provide low-income residents of this underserved community with free and accessible legal assistance. And the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia received continued public funding to support their Southeast Neighborhood Access Project, which provides clients with access to lawyers who work in two neighborhood offices in Wards 7 and 8.
By Craig Welkener As DC's affordable housing crisis deepens, Beth Harrison and other advocates have created an innovative program for people on the brink of eviction, pushing the boundaries of what has been possible in legal aid. By identifying at-risk tenants even before their eviction notices arrive, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project is making real help more available than ever before. Although housing laws in the District are complex, the vast majority of individuals facing eviction are too poor to pay for an attorney. Legal services have historically been limited to those with the time to track down a nonprofit lawyer ahead of time, or those who take advantage of last minute, on-the-spot help provided by the Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project. That project, which provides housing attorneys on a same-day basis, was funded by the city in 2007. However, that paradigm has begun to change, with the start of the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. Beth Harrison, the director of the project, has worked in the trenches from the beginning. After earning her law degree from Harvard, Harrison arrived at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in 2005 as an entry-level housing attorney. At that time, Legal Aid's housing law program consisted of only three full-time staff attorneys, one fellow, and two loaned attorneys from law firms. The work received a boost in 2007, when the DC Council appropriated funds to subsidize legal counsel for the poor. Legal Aid's housing work has grown since then to twelve permanent lawyers and three loaned associates. As Harrison explains, these changes have meant that advocates can serve more clients, and "a big piece of that has been the city's choice to appropriate that funding." But vast gaps remain. The DC Bar Pro Bono Center reports that currently 95% of tenants remain unrepresented, while 90% to 95% of landlords pay for an attorney. Systemic problems call for sustainable solutions. And the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project—run by Legal Aid, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the DC Bar Pro Bono Center—is futuristic in its design. "We are reviewing all eviction cases as they are filed with the court," Harrison explains. For approximately one out of every seven cases involving subsidized housing, "we send a letter saying we want to represent you." If the tenant accepts the help, a lawyer begins working on their case pro bono—even before the tenant receives an eviction notice. The program began in 2015, and relies on a smorgasbord of local nonprofits and law firm pro bono work to accomplish the mission. By providing help exactly when people can use it the most, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project has the potential to truly change the norm of the unrepresented tenant. Perhaps this is the wave of the future. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently introduced the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016, which would increase funding for similar housing projects. Guaranteeing a broad “right to counsel … in civil cases involving fundamental human needs" is McDuffie’s long-term goal. Harrison is certainly inspired. "The legal work that we do here is incredibly challenging and rich. And the interaction with the clients of course is an ongoing benefit. It's an ongoing inspiration to keep doing the work." Craig Welkener is a volunteer with the Washington Council of Lawyers, a Ward 8 resident, and a Georgetown graduate clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.