September 2020 Newsletter

 

 

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From the Executive Director

The past few months have been a whirlwind for SLLS. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our community has been devastating, and widespread. Our housing caseload has tripled, and as COVID relief programs end thousands of families are at-risk of becoming homeless. We’ve seen a 670% increase in requests for legal help with unemployment benefits, as many suddenly out of work families who never thought they would need civil legal aid are reaching out for our assistance. As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, this is only the beginning of a long crisis.

Everyday our team is fighting for the rights of some of our community’s most vulnerable families. I am proud of the work they have accomplished in the midst of crisis. Thank you for your support in making the fight for fairness possible.

Laura Tuggle

Executive Director


SLLS Receives COVID-19 Relief Fund Donations for Critical Legal Aid

We were one of only 25 recipients of Hancock Whitney’s COVID-19 housing relief funds, aimed to keep vulnerable families across the Gulf South in their homes during the pandemic. Their generous donation will help cover the cost of an attorney providing legal assistance for evictions and rental assistance for 140 low income families impacted by COVID-19.

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We are thrilled to be recent recipients of Humana Medicaid’s COVID-19 Relief Fund! With these funds, our new COVID-19 Intake Specialist will streamline our processes to meet the increased community need for our services in these unprecedented times. We are grateful to have Humana as a partner in the ongoing work to make our community a healthier and safer place for all its members.


Virtual Legal Clinics with New Orleans Public Library

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We are excited to announce our new partnership with the New Orleans Public Library to host free virtual legal clinics twice a month with a focus on assisting low-income families and individuals with civil legal issues, including evictions, landlord-tenant disputes, federal tax issues, employment, public benefits, foreclosures, bankruptcies and divorces.

The clinic is held the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. Library users can sign up to be screened for an appointment online here, or call the Rosa F. Keller Library & Community Center at (504) 596-2660 or Nora Navra Library at (504) 596-3118, from 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.


The SLLS Team is Growing!

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have welcomed 10 new staff members to our team. We are excited about the skills and expertise they are bringing to the table to help us meet the moment for vulnerable families in our community. You can learn more about our new staff, and their roles on the SLLS Blog.

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SLLS Hosts Two Prestigious Summer Fellowships

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Auriana Siplin, a Southern University Law Center student, was selected for Equal Justice Work’s Rural Summer Legal Corps (RSLC). The program connects Student Fellows with LSC-funded civil legal aid organizations to help address the access-to-justice crisis for people living in rural areas. Auriana has been working with our Baton Rouge office on rural community outreach. You can learn more about the RSLC here.

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James Petersen was selected as one of three John J. Curtin, Jr. Fellowship recipients this summer. The fellowship is designed to prevent homelessness, or assist homeless or indigent clients or their advocates and provide much-needed legal assistance to organizations serving the under-represented. James has been working with our legal clinic at One Stop Homeless Services Center in Baton Rouge. You can learn more about the Curtin Fellowship here.


Thank You Summer Law Clerks!

For the past few months SLLS has hosted 32 summer law clerks from Loyola, Tulane, and Southern. They served remotely this summer, working with our attorneys to serve clients and gain practical legal experience. They did a wonderful job adjusting to the remote working experience, and we are grateful for their service!

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Today, marks one month since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Louisiana. Our lives have changed in ways that were unfathomable before  now. The impact of the pandemic has been especially severe in southeast Louisiana where so many of tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs worked in low-paying jobs, doing gig work, or in the hospitality industry. Before this crisis, they had little money left at the end of each month. Now they’ve survived weeks with no to little income combined with no job prospects. Even people lucky enough to receive Louisiana unemployment benefits have gotten at most only $249 per month, one of the lowest unemployment benefit rates in the country.

While new federal programs created through the CARES Act and changes made through the Governor’s emergency orders will provide relief for many, it may be months before some in our community receive the help they need. Yet day-to-day needs like food, housing, and medical care will not wait for unemployment checks or stimulus funds to arrive. Low-income and other vulnerable residents often bear a disproportionate share of the impacts of disasters as they struggle to make ends meet for their families and keep a roof over heads.

Thanks to supporters like you, SLLS continues to fight hard for the low- income people impacted by COVID-19. Our advocacy helped suspend evictions in both private and publicly funded housing – ensuring that low-income tenants could be safe in their homes during the crisis. Though all evictions in our state are illegal through April 30, 2020, many tenants have contacted us, fearful that they still will end up on the street with some landlords cutting off their utilities, locking them out of their homes, throwing their belongings on the street, and engaging in other threatening actions. We continue to represent these tenants – advocating for them with their landlords and filing restraining orders in court when needed. Your support has made it possible to keep many of the tenants in their homes.

 

 

Click on the links below to read more stories about our work and the experiences of the people we serve:

In addition to providing free legal advice and representation to our clients, SLLS has been working hard to provide reliable legal information to everyone.  Federal, state, and local governments are creating new programs, changing program rules, and adjusting procedures quickly to try to curb the effects of the COVID-19. The speed of these changes has resulted in general confusion and rampant public misinformation  To address this problem, SLLS has published Know Your Rights resources on several topics available at https://slls.org/news/blog/.  We will continue to update and add to these resources throughout the crisis.

SLLS also launched a series of Facebook Live Sessions on COVID-19. You can find the Facebook Live Sessions listed by below by CLICKING HERE. You can also watch the sessions by clicking on the images below.

 

Foreclosure Protection during COVID-19

Are you a homeowner who lost income because of COVID-19? Are you worried about how you'll make mortgage payments? Are you anxious you might lose your home?

This Facebook Live Session featuring Anthony Sartorio, Managing Attorney of SLLS's Foreclosure Prevention Unit, discusses homeowner's rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Tenant’s Rights

You can't pay your rent- what should you do? SLLS Staff Attorney Hannah Adams talks about the current state of evictions in Louisiana, what to do if your landlord illegally locks you out, and how to talk to your landlord about April rent.

 

Avoiding Common Tax Scams

Paul Tuttle, Director of the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, discusses Coronavirus/Covid-19 related tax issues and also avoiding common tax scams.

 

Unemployment Benefits

Have you lost your job because COVID-19? Are you trying to get Louisiana unemployment benefits? SLLS Attorney Julia Jack will discuss how to apply for benefits and what to do if your application is denied. She'll also discuss new benefits available under the CARES ACT.

 

Current topics are available at https://slls.org/news/blog/ include resources to help:

  • Homeowners
    • Foreclosure Prevention
  • People Who Need to Access Food for their Families
    • SNAP (Food Stamps)
    • March and April Food Stamps (SNAP) Benefit Increase
    • Getting and Paying for Food
  • Workers
    • Unemployment Compensation
  • Tenants
    • Tenant's Rights
    • Can I be Evicted from a Hotel during COVID-19 (English and Spanish)
    • How to Talk to Your Landlord when You Can’t Pay Rent
  • People with Disabilities
    • Veteran Affairs
    • Social Security Benefits
  • People worried about Access to Healthcare
    • Louisiana Medicaid Cutoffs
  • Everyone
    • Legal Deadlines During COVID-19
    • What does the March 2020 Federal Disaster Declaration Mean for Me?

Just as we have during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the BP Oil Spill, the 2016 Louisiana Floods, and other crises, SLLS remains committed to meeting the challenges of COVID-19 by fighting for the rights and protection of low-income people in our communities. Louisiana and its families have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of March 29, 2020, our state has over 3,500 cases of coronavirus. Over 3 out of every 1,000 residents of Orleans Parish has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Outside of New York, New Orleans has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in the country.

With schools closed and businesses shuttering doors, many low-income people, already struggling to make ends meet, have lost their jobs or are unable to work. During the week of March 15, 2020, over 70,000 unemployment benefits claims (compared to an average of 1,500 claims per week during normal times) were filed. Our workers, already stressed by concerns of how to keep their families healthy and safe, now have to also worry about whether they can keep a roof over their heads, whether their family will have enough food to eat, and whether they can access the civil justice system to protect them when they most need it.

As we end the week, unfortunately, the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on our communities only grows. Many now consider New Orleans the coronavirus epicenter of the country.  The death rate for coronavirus in Orleans Parish is more than double that of any other county in the United States - including New York. Even after the federal government issued a major disaster declaration for Louisiana, our governor warned that our hospitals are at risk of running out of capacity by the first week of April.

SLLS is dedicated now, it always has been, to fighting for justice for the people we serve. Over the past two weeks, we have been working hard – albeit in different ways – to protect vulnerable people. Thanks to supporters like you, we can continue to provide high-quality legal representation, advocacy, and community education for low-income and vulnerable people in our communities throughout COVID-19 and its long-aftermath. We've included some highlights of this emergency response below.

With the end of this disaster nowhere in sight and with the situation, laws, and policies changing daily, SLLS supporters like you play a vital role in protecting low-income people and ensuring their needs and experiences are heard and considered by policy makers. Your support provides high-quality legal representation to the most vulnerable in our communities - ensuring that they have a safe place to stay, where they can maintain social distancing, and where they know they can access the food, medical care, and other resources they need during this frightening time.

We hope you will considering joining us in this work by making a donation or joining our team of volunteer attorneys, professionals, and law students. You can make a donation online at: https://slls.org/donations/. We've included more information about volunteering below. Thank you for joining us in the fight for fairness. Your role in it is as important now as it ever has been.

  • To protect the health and safety of our clients, volunteers, and staff, we quickly shifted to providing legal services remotely. To make this transition possible, we quickly purchased new equipment and other technology and redesigned programming to ensure our services remain continuously available to people in need. We are happy to report that we have completed this transition without any break in services for our clients. People wanting to call to connect with their attorneys or to apply for services can call the local SLLS office serving them or apply online. Information for our offices and our online application can be found at slls.org
  • On 3/25/2020, SLLS launched a COVID-19 Legal Helpline (1-844-244-7871) so people who have legal problems arising from COVID-19 can access the information and legal help they need more easily.
  • We are training our staff on updates to legal issues related to COVID-19 and on tips to work remotely.
  • We are working with Louisiana Lagniappe Law Lab and other partners to make it easier for low-income people to understand their rights during the COVID-19 Crisis. You can find “Know Your Rights” information we created posted at LouisianaLawHelp.org, our website (https://slls.org/news/blog/), and on our Facebook page (@SLLSHelps).

In collaboration with community partners, we are fighting for policy changes to mitigate some of the most dire impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on low-income people. We advocated and achieved moratoria on evictions, foreclosures, and Medicaid terminations throughout our state. We continue fighting for the rights of vulnerable people – particularly people who are homeless, people living with disabilities, and the elderly – to ensure they can stay safely in their homes; can access the unemployment benefits, food stamps, and healthcare benefits they need; and can access the courts for emergencies – like protective orders – to keep their families safe. Thanks to advocacy by SLLS and its partners:

    • The state has put a moratorium on evictions statewide until at least April 13th. In Orleans Parish, this moratorium will run until at least April 24th. 
    • Many housing authorities in our service area have agreed to stop evictions and kicking people off vouchers during the COVID-19 Crisis
    • Many parishes in our service area have agreed to stop foreclosures until the end of the crisis.
    • The state will not terminate Medicaid and will reinstate coverage for people whose benefits were cut off after March 18, 2020.
  • We are actively engaged in local community responses to COVID-19. We are participating at least weekly in the City of New Orleans Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) and the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Access to Justice Disaster Planning Committee.

 

  • We also are coordinating with national partners including the Legal Service Corporation the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, the American Bar Association Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic, private attorneys, law firms, Voices for Civil Justice, and others from around the country who are identifying emerging issues and developing ways to address them.

Our attorneys are representing clients to address the serious immediate impacts of this disaster. Here are a few examples:

  • Despite the moratorium on evictions, some landlords continue to threaten, intimidate, and attempt to illegally evict their tenants without a court order.  We’ve already opened over 30 cases for tenants threatened with illegal evictions since the eviction moratoria began.
    • One of these cases was highlighted in a story in the Times-Picayune this weekend. Only days after Kyla Millings told her landlord that she would be out of work for over a month after she lost her job because of COVID-19, her landlord illegally locked her out of her apartment. Kyla called the police. They correctly told her that her landlord could not evict her from her apartment without a court order and told her she could re-enter her apartment. Despite police intervention, her landlord started to remove Kyla's appliances and threw out the food Kyla had purchased so that she could follow the Governor's order to stay at home during the pandemic. Our attorneys obtained a court order preventing the landlord from evicting Kyla from her home.
    • We've stopped several landlord's and long-term motel operators from evicting vulnerable people into homelessness by contacting the landlords on behalf-of our clients and explaining to them that evicting their tenants at this time is illegal.
  • SLLS Staff Attorney Hannah Adams was interviewed about a New Orleans area landlord who threatened to evict people, even as the COVID-19 crisis was raging. You can find that story by CLICKING HERE.
  • We also continue representing domestic violence survivors in court – helping them get protective orders so they can keep themselves and their children safe.

Our SLLS Pro Bono Program is moving to mobilize volunteer efforts to assist in the response. If you’re interested in joining us in our work to fight for fairness for low-income people, please contact:

  • Attorneys and other professionals: Elena Perez at eperez@slls.org
  • Undergraduates and law students: Becca Rubenstein at volunteer@slls.org