OneJustice Blog

Bring life-changing legal help to Californians in need.

Category Archives: Help for Families

You did something very special…

Last week, the OneJustice Network came together and brought help, hope, and justice to Californians in need — and we couldn’t be more grateful!

Through the generosity of donors like you, along with law firms, corporations, and our nonprofit partners, we raised over $286,000 to bring mobile legal clinics to four high priority counties: Butte, Solano, Tulare, and San Joaquin.

On behalf of the OneJustice staff, Board of Directors, Advisory Board, and most importantly, the individuals who will receive vital legal help because of your support, thank you!

In case you weren’t able to attend, below are some photos from the inspiring evening, and be sure to visit our Facebook page for the full album!

You can also click here to watch the videos we made for Honorees Suk and Chris and the Fund-A-Need Challenge.

Thank you again for bringing help, hope, and justice to vulnerable communities. We look forward to keeping you informed about the impact your generosity will make!

With appreciation,

The OneJustice Team

P.S. Didn’t get a chance to bid on any items at the event? There are still a few items up for grabs during our fire sale, which will run through July 6 at midnight! Click here to bid now!

IMAGE: Photos from Opening Doors to Justice event.

She hears their calls…

Welcome to our new Pro Bono Justice Program Associate, Lyla Bugara!

We’re super excited to introduce you to the newest member of our team! Lyla will be working with the Pro Bono Justice Program, which fosters volunteerism in the legal profession and builds innovative, private/nonprofit collaborations that deliver free legal services to vulnerable communities. So to get to know her better, we sat down with Lyla this week and asked her a few questions!

Please join us in welcoming her to the OneJustice network!


Photo: Lyla Bugara, the new Pro Bono Justice Program Associate in the San Francisco office.

Meet Lyla Bugara, the new Pro Bono Justice Program Associate in the San Francisco office.

Thank you for joining us today, Lyla! Tell us what drew you to the work of OneJustice?

I was extremely excited by the opportunity to work at OneJustice because of the organization’s commitment to systemic and transformative change. OneJustice is a unique nonprofit in that it takes a bird’s-eye view of the legal aid system in California and works to develop innovative solutions to the many problems that plague our state’s justice system. Millions of people live their lives every day without access to legal resources just because of where they live, how much money they make, where they were born, what language they speak, the color of their skin, and their gender identity. It’s wildly unjust, and the time for change was yesterday! The good news is that we are living in historic times. Thousands of Black and brown people across the country are rising up to say “enough!” to systemic racism and oppression. I hear their calls. And OneJustice’s work plays such an important part in the fight for equal justice, economic justice, and racial justice. I am honored to work here.

We’re honored to have you on the team! What will you be doing in your role at OneJustice?

As the Pro Bono Justice Program Associate, I will be responsible for managing the Justice Bus Project in Northern California and clinic coordination for the Rural Justice Collaborative. Both of these programs provide essential legal services to people living in rural areas who might otherwise never be served. I hope to ensure these projects best serve the needs of oppressed and marginalized Californians, while transforming the legal aid system in California.

We look forward to hearing about this work in the near future! What were you up to before coming to OneJustice? 

In 2011, I worked at the Correctional Association of New York advocating for an end to the incarceration of domestic violence survivors. From 2012-2016, I worked at ColorOfChange, the country’s largest online civil rights organization, as Criminal Justice Campaign Manager where I managed campaigns relating to ending for-profit prisons and anti-Black police violence.

It sounds like really rewarding work! And final question, tell us something about you that is not work-related!

I was born and raised Macrobiotic — a Japanese diet based on the power of whole foods to heal and nourish the body. From ages 10-13, I went to “Macro Camp” every summer. 🙂

Thank you so much for your time, Lyla! We’re happy to welcome you to the OneJustice team!

It’s never too late for a fresh start…

Over 100 individuals receive free legal help in Los Angeles!

IMAGE: Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and the John M. Langston Bar Association volunteer attorneys at the Fresh Start Legal Clinic in Los Angeles.

Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and the John M. Langston Bar Association volunteer attorneys at the Fresh Start Legal Clinic in Los Angeles.

On Saturday, March 19, 2016, OneJustice, in partnership with Jenesse Center Legal Advisory CommitteeAlternate Public Defender, Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Californians for Safety and JusticeICE out of LAIMPACT LA, the John M. Langston Bar Association, Legal Aid Foundation of Los AngelesLos Angeles Public DefenderNeighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, A New Way of Life Reentry ProjectOne LA I.A.F., and other Los Angeles-based community organizations helped give Angelenos a Fresh Start.

At the newly created Fresh Start Legal Clinic, South LA residents completed applications for the Traffic Ticket Amnesty program, which allows individuals with unpaid fines on traffic and non-traffic infraction tickets to get a reduction of up to 80% of the amount owed to the court or collections agency. Clients also filled out applications for Proposition 47, a program that changes low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors.

Having a suspended driver’s license or felony criminal record can be a barrier to employment that keeps individuals and families trapped in an endless cycle of poverty. Without the ability to work and earn a living, families are forced to make difficult decisions about housing, transportation, and other life necessities. Traffic Ticket Amnesty and Proposition 47 programs can help end this cycle. Both programs are crucial to bettering individuals’ lives. Participants in these time-limited programs are able to improve their employment prospects, regain driver’s licenses, remove immigration barriers, and reduce old debts all through a brief application and short post-clinic process.

IMAGE: Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and the John M. Langston Bar Association volunteer attorneys hard at work at the Fresh Start Legal Clinic in Los Angeles.

Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and the John M. Langston Bar Association volunteer attorneys hard at work at the Fresh Start Legal Clinic in Los Angeles.

At the clinic, about 70 volunteers helped over 100 South Los Angeles community members with Proposition 47 reclassification and Traffic Ticket Amnesty. Volunteer attorneys helped clients with the support of community organizations. Thanks to the Fresh Start Legal Clinic, South LA residents face fewer barriers to success in their futures.

“[The clinic was] extremely helpful and it helps people to achieve what they always wanted to do,” said one client.

Thank you to our wonderful partners, supporters, and volunteers for making this clinic a reality!

For more information about Proposition 47, please visit http://myprop47.org/.

To learn more about Traffic Ticket Amnesty, please visit http://www.backontheroadca.org/.

I could see happiness in their eyes

Healthy Nonprofits Program’s Christopher McConkey tells us about the civil justice shortfall and the need for free legal assistance.

We asked our Staff Attorney Christopher McConkey to give us his insight on why it’s necessary for organizations and programs in the legal sector to transform the civil legal aid delivery system.


Guest Blogger: Christopher McConkey, OneJustice Staff Attorney for the Healthy Nonprofits Program

[Photo: Huffington Post]

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

There is a phenomenon in our society where people who are less able to afford legal help are often the people who need it the most. These low-income individuals struggle every day to find the legal assistance they need to preserve basic life necessities like housing, health care, economic security, and child custody.

This is not a minor phenomenon. Over 60 million people in the United States might qualify for free civil legal services because they live at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. However, people are less likely to access these services due to limited resources, mental health issues, and inexperience with our legal system.

Worsening this crisis, insufficient funding prevents many legal aid programs from serving 50% or more of the people who actively seek their help, leaving attorneys to address less than 20% of lower-income people’s legal needs.1 All of these shortfalls ultimately leave low-income individuals without critical legal assistance.

The Civil Justice Shortfall

The civil justice shortage is especially acute in California. As a legal aid attorney right after law school, I encountered hundreds of people slowly moving from one legal services project to another with the same issues. The recurring problem was program capacity. Staff attorneys reached full caseloads, projects offered fewer services to help more people, and funders carved programs to reflect their priorities. Even waves of talented and eager volunteers could expand an organization’s capacity only superficially, and only to a point.

I recall a monthly legal clinic I helped coordinate in Los Angeles. This clinic aimed to reduce an overwhelming and countywide need for immigration legal aid. The immigration attorneys who volunteered–I was not one of them–helped numerous lower-income Angelenos to understand and pursue their legal options. Limited capacity, however, left some clients on the waitlist for months. Those who persevered accessed expert immigration services for free. Those who dropped off the waitlist continued the long search for assistance or, worse, gave up.

For the clients who received assistance, legal help gave them their safety, jobs, family cohesion, dignity, and peace of mind; I could see happiness in their eyes. To me, this clinic exemplifies why finally eliminating the justice gap is worth our collective effort, resources, and ingenuity.

Transforming the Legal Services Sector through Innovation

As with all solvable problems, we should be optimistic! Our resourceful and morally ambitious society can overcome this justice shortfall. More funding is necessary, but for now, we can and should innovate additional ways to expand legal services for people who are lower-income.

[Photo: Legal Services Nonprofit leaders discussing trainings.]

Legal Services Nonprofit leaders discussing trainings.

OneJustice is already strengthening California’s legal services infrastructure to provide greater access to the legal system. In the Healthy Nonprofits Program (“HNP”), we are supplying nonprofit management consulting, legal technical support, and public policy advocacy to legal services organizations throughout the state.

Additionally, we help connect hundreds of public-interest-minded law students to nonprofit and government employers every year. We are invigorating legal nonprofits while enhancing the environment in which they operate—all so we can transform the legal services sector.

Individual attorneys will close the justice gap one client at a time. Several factors can coalesce to make that possible: additional funding, robust nonprofit management, public policies that value legal services organizations, and the gumption to innovate strategies that will solve one of the most stubborn justice crises of our time.

1 For more information about this civil justice gap, please see the Legal Services Corporation’s report titled Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans


Chris_CROPPED

As a Staff Attorney in the Healthy Nonprofits Program, Chris helps guide legal services organizations on matters of nonprofit law and management. He also advocates for public policies that foster the growth of legal nonprofits and–through them–meaningful access to justice for all Californians. In this way, his work bolsters California’s infrastructure for civil legal assistance at the organizational and systemic levels. As part of his role, Chris provides legal support for OneJustice’s consulting and policy work. Additionally, he provides policy briefings and advocacy for OneJustice’s statewide community of legal services organizations.

 

7 fun facts about the farthest we’ve gone

They boarded the bus this morning

And will travel 706 miles before they return

In our March Justice contest, we asked you all to guess the number of miles a group of law student volunteers will travel over the course of the two-day Justice Bus Trip to bring free legal help to persons with disabilities in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

The correct answer?  706 miles

Students from Pacific McGeorge School of Law boarded the Justice Bus this morning.

Students from Pacific McGeorge School of Law boarded the Justice Bus this morning.

And we are delighted to report that Karen Dwyer-Meadow won our March contest, with her closest guess of 728 miles.  Congratulations Karen!

And yep, you heard that right.

These amazing law students from Pacific McGeorge School of Law will spend their spring break traveling a total of 706 miles in their quest to bring life-changing legal help to residents of Humboldt and Del Norte counties.  Today they were at a Yurok Tribe building in Eureka (Humboldt County) providing free legal assistance on special education issues to nine families of children with disabilities.  Tomorrow morning they will get up and travel to Klamath (Del Norte County) and set up a free legal clinic for children and adults with disabilities – and then travel home to Sacramento.

We are also delighted to bring you 7 fun facts about these counties, which represent the farthest that Justice Bus have ever traveled!

  1. Number of prior Justice Bus Trips to these counties: 1 prior trip (in January of this year)
  2. Total hours of service that each student will perform during the trip: 8 hours (13 if you also count the hours they will spend in training on the areas of law)
  3. Percent of population living below the poverty level in Del Norte County: 21.5%  (compared to 15.3% for the state as a whole)
  4. Percent of population living below the poverty level in Humboldt County: 19.7
  5. Number of incorporated cities in Del Norte County: only 1 (Crescent City, with a total population of 7,394)
  6. Number of Justice Bus trips McGeorge students have gone on: 15 trips (This trip is the law school’s 16th!)
  7. Final Interesting Fact: Humboldt County contains eight Indian reservations within its borders. Only four other counties in the United States contain a greater number. And in fact, the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation (located in Del Norte County) is the largest in the state of California.
This family was all smiles after receiving help at the Justice Bus special education clinic today in Humboldt County.

This family was all smiles after receiving help at the Justice Bus special education clinic today in Humboldt County.

Thank you to Pacific McGeorge School of Law and their amazing law students who are willing to travel serious distance to make a difference for those in need.

Thank you all to all the amazing partners on this trip!  Huge thanks to Legal Services of Northern California and Disability Rights California for providing the expert supervising attorneys and the trainings for the law students.  Thank you to Chief Judge Abby Abinanti and all the amazing staff at the Yurok Tribal Court and the Yurok Tribe for their incredible partnership.

And a heartfelt thank you to the California Endowment and a group of generous donors for making this trip possible.  You are creating the change we all hope to see in the world.  Thank you!

To believe is power. Justice is power. This is justice.

Sometimes you get to be part of something really special.

That’s what happened when Mr. Salazar invited me into his home.

Last October, something really special happened to me.  I drove in the early morning from my home in Pacifica to a small town in the Central Valley – Firebaugh, California.  And there, I met Mr. Florentino Salazar, who invited me into his home.

Mr. Salazar in the Dave Brick Film for OneJustice

Click on the image above to view the 3-minute film Dave Brick created about the power of legal services.

You see, a couple of months earlier, OneJustice won an amazing contest run by Dave Brick of Brick Films.  Dave is an incredibly talented filmmaker (you can see his work on his website) – and he decided to provide a free film to a nonprofit as a way of giving back.  After 47 contest submissions and thousands of votes cast for the finalists, OneJustice was the contest winner – and the recipient of Dave’s generosity with his time, energy and expertise.  Working with Dave, we all decided that the best possible idea was a film that could be used by the entire legal services sector to relate the power of our work – through the lens of one client’s experience.  And with OneJustice’s focus on reaching isolated areas of the state, and Dave’s prior work for CRLA and PolicyLink documenting the needs of small unincorporated communities in rural areas, it was a no-brainer that we would focus on the Central Valley.

And so we worked with Chris Schneider and the dedicated team at Central California Legal Services, who introduced us to Mr. Salazar.  He agreed to meet with me, to hear more about the film idea, so I trundled off to Firebaugh.

And had my heart broken wide open.  As we sat around his kitchen table, Mr. Salazar was incredibly open with me about his experience.  He had worked his entire life to provide for his family.  Like many low-wage workers, they lived one pay period away from truly hard times.  And then came medical problems, surgery, and trouble making ends meet – followed by a terrible experience with a loan modification company whose unlawful practices brought Mr. Salazar and his family to the brink of losing their home.  Somehow they miraculously made it to Central California Legal Services – who stepped in, saved the home, and ultimately won an injunction that prohibited the company from continuing their illegal and predatory behavior.

Now I know that this story is repeated hundreds and thousands of times throughout California.  Legal services attorneys work miracles in family’s lives every day.  But sitting in Mr. Salazar’s modest and immaculate home, meeting his wife, sons and family members, hearing him describe the attorneys at Central California Legal Services as angels who came into his life – it reminded me what an honor and a privilege it is to do this work.

And so it seems particularly right to share this film with you all on Martin Luther King Jr. day.  Because I think Dr. King would have agreed with Mr. Salazar that “To believe is power.  Justice is power.  This is justice.”

(Click here or on the image above to watch the film.)

Making Joe Biden proud

Creating Impact in Los Angeles

A new lawyer’s reflection on launching an ambitious new pro bono project

What’s a Leslie Knope-type to do after law school graduation? For me, as my 3L year at Loyola Law School began, I was hoping to land a fellowship and start a public interest career in Los Angeles.

Luckily for me, some wonderful people over at the Association of Pro Bono Counsel were looking for someone to work on a brand-new project working with domestic violence survivors in Los Angeles at the same time.  Through fate, and a dash of speedy emailing, I was able to get an interview for this new position, armed with little more information than I’ve spelled out here.  And I think they mentioned something about Joe Biden.  After a few hours of incessant email refreshing; a quick application period; and a bit more waiting, I found out I’d received a Loyola Fellowship to coordinate the Los Angeles Project of a nationwide program, IMPACT.

LA City Attorney Mike Feuer

LA City Attorney Mike Feuer opens yesterday’s IMPACT LA launch clinic.

From there, it was a whirlwind of bar studies and life changes. A few months later, I found myself in the Los Angeles office of OneJustice, hoping I was the only one who thought I had no idea what I was doing. My friends all gave me time-tested 20-something advice, “fake it ’til you make it.” After just a few months of working with the fabulous OneJustice team and the great folks from APBCo, I know I’m incredibly lucky to be here and that I have a remarkable opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.

My role as the Loyola Law School Post Graduate Public Interest Law Fellow is to coordinate the IMPACT LA Project. IMPACT is a nationwide project that was formed in response to a meeting between ABPCo members and Vice President Joe Biden.  The APBCo IMPACT (“Involving More Pro Bono Attorneys in Our Communities Together”) Project is taking root in eight urban centers, including Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The objective of the IMPACT Project is to design innovative and sustainable new solutions that will increase access to free legal services by utilizing pro bono volunteers.

Here in LA, our project is a monthly clinic that provides free wrap-around legal services to survivors of domestic violence in South LA at the Jenesse Center, a leading domestic violence shelter and support center. At the clinics, volunteer attorneys from Los Angeles APBCo-member law firms provide free legal assistance in the areas of housing, immigration, and public benefits. And just yesterday, with the help of the LA City Attorney, Mike Feuer, we kicked off 2014 decisively.

Photo of IMPACT LA volunteer attorneys.

Volunteer attorneys from Latham & Watkins and Morrison & Foerster staffed the IMPACT LA launch clinic yesterday working with supervising attorneys from Public Counsel and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

At our official IMPACT LA launch clinic yesterday, eight volunteer attorneys from Morrison & Foerster and Latham & Watkins gathered at the Jenesse Center to give generously of their time and energy.  During the clinic, the volunteers met with and advised six women, working closely with two supervising legal services attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County and Public Counsel.

And this was just the beginning.  We will now be running monthly clinics at the Jenesse Center, staffed by a rotation of pro bono attorneys from law firms and supervised by a partnership of local legal services nonprofits.

For me, the most impressive thing about last Friday’s clinic was the outpouring of support from volunteers for survivors of domestic violence.  It’s an issue that can be difficult to talk about for many.  However, my experience with the clinic has been that all of our volunteers are compassionate people who enjoy the opportunity to provide these services to women in the city that we all share.

And most importantly, the women who receive the services are able to better understand their situations and take control of their own lives.  And that is what makes my job so worthwhile. Well, that and being able to imagine that somewhere out there, Vice President Biden is proud of me.

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Kelsey Williams sitting at her desk.Kelsey Williams is a Loyola Law School Post-Graduate Public Interest Law Fellow at OneJustice and runs IMPACT LA in Southern California. During law school, Kelsey spent one summer working in the Students’ Rights Project at the ACLU of Southern California and her second summer working with foster youth at Public Counsel. Kelsey is loving running IMPACT LA, learning more about the needs of domestic violence survivors, and devising ways for IMPACT LA to meet them.  If your law firm or corporate legal department is interested in volunteering for an IMPACT LA clinic, please email Kelsey at kwilliams@one-justice.org.

What images spring into your mind when we say “rural”?

When it comes to barriers to legal help in Southern California – “rural” and “isolated” may not look like what you think!  I am finding “legal services deserts” closer to home.

When you hear the term “rural” you might picture farms, long and open roads, and orchards as far as the eye can see. You may not necessarily think about how rural Californians lack access to legal help when they are facing pressing legal problems, but that is all too frequently their experience. As documented in the Access Commission’s report on rural access to justice, rural communities face significant barriers in accessing legal help, including fewer nonprofit legal organizations, lack of transportation, inadequate access to technology and law libraries, language barriers, and fewer law firms providing pro bono services.  Over the last year, I have learned that there are also many isolated and remote communities that have tremendous barriers to accessing life-changing legal help but that do not fit the traditional image of “rural.”  As someone who has grown up in Los Angeles County, I have been shocked to find these communities – which can be a little as 100 miles away from urban centers – with such limited access to legal help.

VIDEO: Click on the image above to view a short video showing the isolated areas that the Justice Bus Project covers.

OneJustice created the Justice Bus® Project in 2007 to bridge the divide between the need for legal help in rural areas and the substantial pro bono resources available only in urban areas of the state.  I am proud to be one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows working to expand this project – and I am the first Fellow to be working out of OneJustice’s new Los Angeles office to grow the Justice Bus Project to bring legal services to isolated communities in Southern California. As I enter the second year of my Fellowship, my primary responsibility is to build new partnerships with legal aid organizations serving rural or isolated communities and then design legal clinics to provide free legal help on the areas of law most needed in those areas.  Then I recruit, train and bring groups of law student and attorney volunteers to staff the clinics.   These Justice Bus clinics allow the nonprofit legal organizations to provide essential legal assistance to many more clients in a few hours than their limited number of attorneys and resources usually permit.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, I saw first-hand the struggles my parents, immigrants and low-income individuals, faced in the city. The need to help my community was one of my driving forces in college and law school. While in law school at Southwestern, I had the opportunity to participate in the first Justice Bus trip in Southern California. On that first Justice Bus trip, my eyes were opened to the great need and struggles outside the city and the citizens living too far from all the great free legal organizations.

I started working on the Justice Bus Project in the fall of 2011, and as the project has grown in Southern California, I have noticed that the “rural” landscape is different. The project has begun to serve not just traditionally rural but also isolated communities. These communities may appear as developed urban centers but are actually “legal services deserts” – just as isolated and underserved as rural farmlands.

This young dad was able to advocate to get his benefits for his family with the help of the two law students from Southwestern Law School during a 2012 Justice Bus Trip to Lancaster.

Lancaster, located 70 miles from downtown in the northern part of Los Angeles County, is one such community. The city has a population of 156,633 and over 20% of its population lives in poverty. While at first glance it looks like a traditional suburban center with brand new apartments, track homes, and big box stores, the reality is that Lancaster is a desert suburbia in the middle of seemingly nowhere. While there are over 15  legal aid organizations serving Los Angeles County, none are physically located in Lancaster.  Many of the legal aid organizations in Los Angeles struggle to make their services available to Lancaster residents and are eager to partner with OneJustice to use the Justice Bus model to expand their reach.

Another region with tremendous need is the Coachella Valley in Riverside County. For some, Coachella may invoke images of a wealthy desert community of retirees and casinos — but many residents face the same barriers to legal services as traditional rural communities. The Coachella Valley has a population of about 76,036 with 19.7% of its population living below the poverty line and a 15% unemployment rate. While the Coachella Valley is fortunate to have legal aid organizations like Inland Counties Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance, these agencies have limited resources and do not have local law schools or large law firms from which to recruit volunteers. The Justice Bus has traveled to Indio – which is over 75 miles from Riverside and over 125 miles from Los Angeles.  With a population of just over 76,000, the median income for a family living in Indio is roughly $35,000.  About 16.8% of families and 21.5% of the population live below the federal poverty line, including 28.2% of those under age 18 and 12.0% of those age 65 or over.

As I have been expanding the Justice Bus Project to address the needs in communities like Lancaster and the Coachella Valley, I have been struck by the intense need for legal help in these areas.  As a mother at a clinic on special education in Lancaster said to us,

“I have been struggling to find way to help my daughter for the last 3 years, with no results. I have been so frustrated, I don’t have the resources to hire private help. I got more useful information here today than in the last 3 years. The attorney is going to help me help my daughter. I finally feel like she has some hope, all I could imagine was a suicidal teenager in her future. Now, someone who cares is going to help…light at the end of the tunnel. We shall fight on!”

And another client told us at a Justice Bus trip to the local public benefits agency in Lancaster, “Today I came into the county building and was late to my appointment, because my grandfather is sick in the hospital and my family is by his side. So I had no one to take me. I walked here from Rosamond, California about twelve miles away just to make it here. I thought my case was going to be canceled when the law students did everything they could to help me. They were very great and a big help and I wouldn’t have been able to get everything done without them.”

During a Justice Bus trip to the Coachella Valley, law students provided advice to this Indio resident on consumer debt issues under the supervision of an attorney from Inland County Legal Services.

I knew in the abstract that these isolated Californians were facing terrible barriers to justice – but hearing it from them first-hand has made me even more committed to continuing to expand the Justice Bus Project in Southern California.

Recently we learned of a new unmet need for help from the Justice Bus: low-income seniors in Lancaster.   As I began working with the senior center in Lancaster to set up the logistics for a new clinic, to be done in partnership with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, I was shocked to learn that there were 90 senior citizens on a waiting list for legal help – and some of them had been waiting for as long as a year.  Just last week, we traveled to the senior center with attorneys from Bet Tzedek and law student volunteers from Southwestern Law School. I am proud that in one clinic with just 6 law student volunteers and 2 supervising attorneys from Bet Tzedek, we were able to serve 22 seniors – and yet, I know that there is much work left to be done.  I will be working to meet these needs during the second year of my Fellowship, and we can use your help!   If you might be interested in traveling on a Justice Bus trip to provide free legal help to low-income seniors, families with children with special needs, veterans, and residents of these isolated areas and others, I would welcome the opportunity to partner with you to remove the barriers to justice they face.  Thank you!

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Cynthia Luna is one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows.

Cynthia Luna is one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows, and she is responsible for coordinating Justice Bus Project in Southern California. Born, raised, and educated in Los Angeles, she is a first generation Salvadorean-American who saw the struggles of migrants and working class people in Los Angeles. While at Southwestern Law School, Cynthia spent much of her time externing and volunteering at several legal non profits in Los Angeles. Her goal has always been to pursue a career in public interest. Cynthia notes that she loves leading on the Justice Bus Project in Southern California, as it has allowed her to learn about and address the needs of low-income individuals in underserved rural and isolated areas.

If you are interested in having your law school, firm, or in-house legal department participate in a Southern California Justice Bus Trip, please email Cynthia at cluna@one-justice.org.

Can you imagine raising your kids in a home with no heat, damaged walls, doors that let in rain, broken windows, and filthy flooring?

Guest Blog for National Pro Bono Week:

That’s what the Chavez family was doing – and it is why I am so thankful I had the privilege of being their pro bono lawyer.

Happy National Pro Bono Week!  Created by the American Bar Association, Pro Bono Week focuses the nation’s attention on the increased need for pro bono services during these challenging economic times and celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.  Here in California we celebrate the work of the law students and attorneys who donate thousands of hours to bring more free, life-saving legal help to Californians in need.  At OneJustice, we believe these volunteers are heroes – and we are proud to bring the following guest blog post from our very own hero, Advisory Board member Marley Degner.

Guest Blog:  Preventing Homelessness for the Chavez Family – My First Pro Bono Case.

Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury and OneJustice Advisory Board Member, prevented the Chavez family from becoming homeless and fought for 7 months for their housing rights.

By Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

I met Mauricio and Sugey Chavez as a new attorney at the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.  It took seven long months – from November 2007 to May 2008 – to help them stabilize their housing, but doing so was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.

Mauricio and Sugey were a young couple with three young children and a fourth on the way.  The Chavez family was seeking help in fighting their landlords’ attempt to evict them from their apartment.  Mauricio had grown up in the apartment, lived there for 18 years, and even married Sugey in the living room.  They went first to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for help and were referred to my law firm – Pillsbury – for pro bono assistance.  Their case was the first pro bono matter, and indeed one of the first cases, that I took on as a new attorney.

Most eviction cases are resolved quickly, but not this one. First, the landlords attempted to evict the family on the basis of trivialities (such as saying that the family set out the garbage in the wrong place) and trumped up allegations – like the family had a dog and set up a satellite dish, even though the landlord had previously agreed to both.

Here is what was really going on.  The apartment had a wide array of serious problems – and the Chavez family had finally gotten up the courage to complain.  In fact, Sugey called the Department of Building Inspection, and when the Inspector came out he found numerous building code violations, including that the apartment lacked any source of heat, that the walls were damaged and poorly repaired, that one of the doors had a hole that admitted rain, that the ceilings and many of the windows needed to be repaired, and that the flooring was damaged and filthy.  And what did the landlords do after being cited for these violations?  They filed the paperwork to evict the Chavez family and their children – and they even had the audacity to tell the family they were being evicted for costing them so much money.

Celebrate Pro Bono Image!

National Pro Bono Week, October 22-27, celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.

And that is why it was so important that the Chavez family had access to representation by an attorney.  By demonstrating the eviction was retaliatory and without good cause, I got the case dismissed.  I also negotiated a Settlement Agreement that forced the landlords to make all the repairs identified in the inspection, make additional renovations to improve the apartment, and even lower the monthly rent.  This was a major win for Mauricio and Sugey – the promise of finally having appropriate living conditions for their children.

Before the repairs could be completed, however, the apartment became infested with mold after the ceiling leaked during a rainstorm.  Mauricio and Sugey’s youngest daughter suffered a severe allergy attack.  The landlords informed the family that they had to temporarily relocate (so the landlords could make more extensive renovations), but assured me that the family could reoccupy the apartment once the work was completed.  But then the landlords tried to back out on the deal – they served the family with a Notice to Vacate that did not allow them to return to their home.  Once again, I was able to step in and protect Mauricio and Sugey’s rights, and the landlords rescinded the notice.

But then the landlords announced that they were going to ask the San Francisco Rent Board for a substantial rent increase, despite the Settlement Agreement where they agreed to a reduced rent amount.  At this point, Mauricio and Sugey were so tired of dealing with the landlords’ behavior that they were open to negotiating a new agreement to move out of the apartment all together. Consistent with the family’s wishes, I negotiated a buy-out of their tenancy for approximately $25,000.  The family used the settlement payment to secure a home loan—and Sugey Chavez gave birth to the family’s fourth child, Giselle.

OneJustice Volunteers Interview a Client

Preventing Homelessness: Each year the network of legal services nonprofits that OneJustice supports provides free legal help on housing matters to over 58,000 low-income families.

What I will always remember about the case was how grateful the Chavez family was for Pillsbury’s assistance.  Sugey told me that she had never had anybody in her life to fight for her the way that I fought for her family, and she was deeply touched.  It made a huge difference that they had attorneys fighting for them – and I am very thankful that I was able to be one of those attorneys.  I had always known that I would be involved with pro bono work as an attorney, and working with Mauricio and Sugey Chavez reaffirmed that commitment.  I have been active in pro bono cases ever since and it is a vitally important part of my professional life.

I am involved with OneJustice because OneJustice exists to make sure that people like the Chavez family have access to legal representation.  I do not know what would have happened to them if they had not been able to secure pro bono help – and quickly – after receiving the first eviction notice.  Their landlords were furious at them for calling the Building Inspector and were determined to use the legal system to evict the family or to raise their rent when the health and safety of the family was threatened by their living conditions.  People like the Chavez family depend on organizations like OneJustice to survive, and that’s why I’m so proud to serve on the OneJustice Advisory Board.

Meet Ana de Alba: She broke our hearts in 3 minutes flat

Ana de Alba receiving the Opening Doors to Justice Award

And today’s guest blog from this award-winning champion for justice will break yours, too.

Introduction by Julia Wilson, Executive Director:  Just about one year ago, the OneJustice network gathered at our annual Opening Doors to Justice event to celebrate the accomplishments of our community.  A young woman took to the stage – and broke the hearts of the audience in just about 3 minutes flat.

That woman was Ana de Alba, and later this week she will receive the prestigious Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public from the California Young Lawyer’s Association.  And boy, does she deserve it.  We are so proud that she is part of the OneJustice network, and I will be in the audience next Friday night, cheering with all my heart and soul as she again takes the stage. Ana graciously agreed to provide a guest blog this week, revisiting her remarks from our stage one year ago.  I know they will inspire you as they have inspired us!

Guest Blog: Ana de Alba, Lang Richert & Patch, Fresno

Ana de Alba resolved she would return to the Central Valley as an attorney and to make the legal system accessible to all.

I am honored to stand before you tonight as a recipient of an “Opening Doors to Justice” award. What this award means to me can be best explained by sharing a story about a field worker from the Central Valley who was in desperate need of legal services.

This particular individual lived in one of the small communities that dot highway 99. She and a crew of about 5 other women spent an entire summer working on a cucumber farm without getting paid. Although this woman, who was a bit braver and more outgoing than the others, demanded payment on their behalf, she was always told that they would get paid “next week.” “Next week” never came.

They were upset, and rightfully so, each of them had young children to support and not only had they provided free labor for an entire summer, they had also paid for childcare, paid for a ride to and from the farm which was located 45 miles from their home, and in the end, they came home with nothing. They were ashamed and felt that they had let their families down.

Ana, shown here at 3 years old, grew up in a small town in the Central Valley.

Encouraged by her children to “fight this,” this woman called an attorney she randomly selected from the yellow pages who was kind enough to tell her that to seek redress she need only go to the Labor Commissioner. When she discovered, however, that the Labor Commissioner was located in Fresno, she was absolutely devastated. Fresno was over 60 miles from her home and filled with freeways and highways that she felt unable to drive on. Worse still, there was no way to get there using public transportation. In the end, none of these women sought out justice because it was simply too inaccessible to them.

This woman was my mother and events like these were all too common in my life. On the day I left Dos Palos to attend UC Berkeley I promised that little girl who heard her mother crying inconsolably in the bathroom that I would return to the Valley as an attorney. I would find a way to make the legal system more accessible so that justice would really be “a right for all.”

Thank you OneJustice for recognizing my efforts and for the great work you do throughout the state, thank you to my firm Lang, Richert & Patch for supporting me and allowing me to use their goodwill in our local legal community to promote pro bono, thank you Central California Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance for being at the front lines of these struggles, and thank you to my husband, daughter, parents, and siblings for giving me strength and always reminding me that the law really is a powerful tool for social change.

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