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Cleveland's Historic Legal Aid Society Sees Its Own Surge with the Pandemic

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Lee Chilcote
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland handles cases that impact basic needs such as health, shelter and safety, economics and education, and access to justice. The group includes 63 full-time attorneys, 44 other staff, and over 3,000 volunteer lawyers.

Early in the pandemic, on the verge of turning 70, Susan Steels lost her long-time job as a chef. Meanwhile, her partner’s business of party planning went the way of most parties, and he had a stroke. The bills began to pile up. The mortgage payments looked unpayable.

So, the South Euclid woman joined the swelling crowd seeking unemployment compensation. “I tried to get it online, and I tried to call. I was on the phone, on the phone, on the phone,” Steels said.

Then friends told her to call the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. Someone picked up right away and took her information. Someone else called back within 24-hours.

“I was so upset and crying,” Steels recalls. “They walked me through it. They worked it out. They’re so nice. They’re so understanding.”

Susan Steels.jpg
Lee Chilcote
Legal Aid helped Susan Steels get unemployment compensation and thereby make the payments on her house in South Euclid, OH.

A Legal Aid worker noticed that Steels, a childhood immigrant from England, had sent Ohio Jobs and Family Services a copy of just one side of her long-time green card. So, Steels sent the other side. Then a lawyer reached the notoriously hard-to-reach agency and won benefits for Steels without a hearing. And a colleague told her that she’d qualify for food stamps.

At first, the pandemic forced Legal Aid to close its four offices in the five counties it covers: Cuyahoga, Lorain, Lake, Geauga, and Ashtabula. The caseload dipped from its usual rate: 8,000 to 10,000 cases per year, each of which helped roughly two people.

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The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and United Way 211 teamed up to answer rent assistance questions, live on Facebook and Twitter on Oct. 26, 2020.

But Legal Aid quickly bought equipment and programs to help clients online. Now cases are surging about layoffs, illnesses, unpaid rent, and other nationwide symptoms of the pandemic, especially for the poor. From June to October, employment cases ran 26 percent higher than in the same period last year, and housing cases 32 percent higher.

Case by case and en masse

Legal Aid tackles problems client by client and systemically. At age 115, the society is believed to be the nation’s fifth oldest organization (and Cuyahoga County’s only one) giving free representation for civil issues to people with low incomes (up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line).

Last year, Legal Aid prevented 90 percent of clients’ threatened evictions and 60 percent of foreclosures. It removed threats to safety in 92 percent of relevant cases and barriers to education in all. Clients gained more than $13 million in income, assets and debt reduction.

The society also gives the public materials and workshops about legal rights, newly focusing on problems of the pandemic.

“Knowledge is power,” says Melanie Shakarian, Legal Aid’s director of development and communications.

What’s more, Legal Aid leads the fight for many reforms. It sparked Cleveland Municipal Court, the nation’s first small claims court, Hough Area Development Corporation, and this year’s Right to Counsel program at Cleveland Housing Court, among other innovations. Now Legal Aid is working with other Ohio groups to fight racial injustice and unclog Ohio Jobs.

When COVID-19 began to spread, Legal Aid happened already to be expanding. The society is now in the third of five years of a campaign to raise $15 million, mostly for services.

Since 2018, Legal Aid’s budget has soared from $8.9 million to $12.2 million. Leaders have expanded the staff from about 80 to 107 and hope for more next year. They also rely on about 800 volunteers per year, not all of them lawyers.

“We are growing to meet the increased need,” says Colleen Cotter, Legal Aid’s executive director for the past 15 years. “But it’s still outpacing our resources.”

Last year, Legal Aid turned away more than half the people seeking its help. It prioritizes cases likely to benefit clients the most. It refers other people to organizations that might help in other ways. And it partners with many other groups.

Legal Aid keeps office hours at the main campuses of MetroHealth, University Hospitals and St. Vincent to help hospital clients with financial coverage and with outside problems hurting their health, from child custody to infested homes. It fights for the educational rights of Cleveland public school families through the district’s Say Yes to Education program, which is spreading to all schools. It coordinates the Right to Counsel program with United Way Services, which handles all the outreach. Legal Aid is also the only agency to be funded by the United Way throughout its 101 years of grant making.

The poor need the law

The law, like most institutions, is slanted toward the rich. They hire top lawyers and lobbyists. They donate to campaigns for judges and lately for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

But Cotter says the poor need the law just as much, especially during the pandemic. They tend to have worse health and healthcare. They lack the kinds of jobs and technology to work from home. And they’re already living on the edge, with few savings, skills and connections to survive yet one more challenge.

Cotter says we could all use lawyers more often than we might think. “It’s very easy to realize, if I get served with a summons, that maybe I should call a lawyer. It’s harder to identify that so many problems in everyday life can be resolved by a lawyer. Lawyering is not just litigation. It’s about problem solving.”

For instance, Legal Aid lawyer Jennifer Kinsley persuaded Medicaid to cover heart and dental work for client Aaliyah Najieb at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. As often happens with society clients, Kinsley discovered and met other needs of Najieb’s: sealing her criminal record, getting benefits for utilities, working out a repayment plan for excess Social Security disability benefits, renewing her disability pass with the Regional Transit Authority, and more.

Najieb says of Kinsley, “That’s my girl! She helped me so much. I didn’t know that legal stuff. I didn’t know I had rights.”

Or take Roy Miller. Early in the pandemic, a new owner fired Miller as manager of a mobile home park. Legal Aid urged him to contact the governor’s office, which got him a hearing at the swamped Ohio Jobs. The agency found his dismissal to be wrongful and gave him compensation and back pay.

Says Miller, “Legal Aid made things a lot easier for me.”

Legal Aid has made things easier for many others. Early in the pandemic, it helped thaw a woman’s mysteriously frozen Social Security account so she could keep living in a home promoting sober lifestyles. It helped correct a false report of a man’s criminal past that was denying him housing. It persuaded a landlord to exterminate bed bugs that had infested a cancer patient’s chemotherapy bag.

Many changes this year

When the pandemic began, Legal Aid went as virtual as possible. It bought laptops and programs for long-distance services, such as hearings and notarizations. It helped clients get hotspots or hosted them at society offices.

Last year, Cleveland City Council reportedly became the Midwest’s first council and the nation’s fourth to give defendants in housing court the right to counsel. Legal Aid and United Way opened the $2-million-per-year program in July. Legal Aid lawyers attend each Cleveland eviction hearing and represent any client in poverty by federal standards with at least one minor child at home.

Laying out for lawyering

About 20 percent of Legal Aid’s budget comes from the federal Legal Services Corp. President-elect Joe Biden has called for expanding the corporation.

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Legal Aid's Jam for Justice live concert will be held virtually this year Dec. 8.The program will feature keynote remarks by The Honorable Goodwin Liu, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California.

Legal Aid also gets money from other government agencies, plus foundations, law firms, businesses, and individual donors. It stages a Jam for Justice fundraiser every fall, featuring musical lawyers. This year’s Jam went virtual and grossed a typical $75,000, with fewer expenses.

To seek help, donate or volunteer, contact Legal Aid at lasclev.org or 1-888-817-3777.

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and "John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil" (Oxford University Press).

Ideastream reporter Taylor Haggerty, The Devil Strip reporter Abbey Marshall and WKYC Reporter Phil Trexler contributed reporting to this story.