OneJustice Blog

Bring life-changing legal help to Californians in need.

Category Archives: Help for Seniors

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.

 

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.)

Clarabelle lived all alone – and they knew it

My great-aunt Clarabelle was a firecracker of a person. 

Until Alzheimers made her dependent on our family – and vulnerable to a group of slick salesmen.

Clarabelle Henson (1905 - 1996) was a force of nature.  Here she is shown sitting with family on the steps of her family home in Tuscola, IL.

Clarabelle Henson (1905 – 1996) was a force of nature. Here she is shown sitting with family on the steps of her family home in Tuscola, IL.

My great-aunt Clarabelle was truly a force of nature in my life.  She was independent, opinionated, and had a firm and unwavering sense of self.  During my childhood, she split her time between an apartment in a suburb of Chicago and the very small town of Tuscola, Illinois (population of around 4,000) in the house where she lived since she was a child.  She was an incredible role model.  A professional woman in a time when such things were not as common, she worked as a much-loved teacher and then principal of a Chicago school for over 24 years while also managing the rental and eventually the sale of our family’s farm in Hindsboro, IL. Having never married, she was fiercely self-sufficient – until she starting suffering the dramatic effects of Alzheimers.

I was reminded of Clarabelle last weekend, during a long but beautiful drive from my home in the Bay Area to a soccer tournament in Redding.  At one point, about two hours into the drive, my husband chuckled and pointed out that the GPS map in the car’s dashboard showed just one long straight line of highway.  No intersecting roads.  No airports.  No towns.  There was hardly anyone else on the road – just miles and miles of open country, farmland, and an expansive horizon overhead.   There was literally nothing around us – it felt restful, almost serene.

It was completely reminiscent of the landscape of my childhood, growing up in Champaign-Urbana, IL almost smack dab in the middle of the state.  Although Urbana is home to the University of Illinois, we lived on the outskirts of Champaign, and it felt very connected to the farms around it.  Although my kids roll their eyes when I talk about it, my elementary school was bordered on three sides by corn fields, and the school shut down on days when the snow prevented the school buses from picking up the children living on farms just outside of town.  When I’m out in rural areas of California, I feel – in some way deeply imprinted from my childhood – like it’s home.

There are so  many wonderful things about small rural towns – whether in Illinois or California.  When we visited Clarabelle in Tuscola and took her out to dinner (at the truck stop no less!), almost everyone knew each other.  She was close to her neighbors on her small street.  We ate homemade apple pie from fruit we picked in her backyard.  Many older Californians leave urban areas and move out to smaller towns in their retirement for exactly these kinds of benefits.  They seek a slower pace, more tightly-knit community, and a more affordable cost of living when they start having to manage on a fixed income.

The GPS map in the car dashboard shows one straight line of Highway 505 heading north - and nothing else around.

The GPS map in the car dashboard shows one straight line of Highway 505 heading north – and nothing else around.

But seniors living in small, rural towns can also be uniquely vulnerable.  In the last decade or so of her life, Clarabelle struggled with the impact of Alzheimers and dementia.  At the beginning, she still lived alone in her family home, and our family – my dad in particular – helped her manage the impact of short-term memory loss and moments of confusion.  But then she got on the list of a team of salesmen from a near-by town.  They figured out that she lived all alone – and that she was completely unconcerned about inviting them into her house.  She called them “the nice young men who come to visit.”  They tried to sell her all kinds of insurance that she clearly didn’t need – and they would stop by her house in cycles, each of them trying to make the sale.   Sometimes they succeeded, and she paid them thousands of dollars. Luckily, the neighbors would call my dad to let him know that it was happening.  He would call Clarabelle, demand that she put these “nice young men” on the phone with him, and berate them until they left.  Eventually it got so bad that my dad went to their office, told them that he knew exactly what they were doing, and that our family wouldn’t stand for it any longer.  Finally, the visits stopped.

Clarabelle was lucky.  She had family relatively close-by, neighbors who were part of the solution, and family members fully capable of handling the problem.  But many seniors do not.  They move to rural areas and no longer have familiar support systems.  Their families members live too far away to monitor what is happening.  Neighbors don’t make those phone calls.  And seniors fall victim to all kinds of abuse – both financial, emotional, and even physical.

Some seniors can turn to their local nonprofit legal organization that provides free legal help to older Californians for help.  But some live hundreds of miles from the nearest legal services nonprofit – and cannot travel to get there.  And that is why the Justice Bus Project is focused on bringing free legal assistance to exactly those seniors living in rural and isolated areas of the state.  One of OneJustice’s key initiatives in 2013 is to expand the services available for older Californians – both through increased Justice Bus Trips to bring free legal help right to rural senior centers and senior housing facilities, and by expanding the capacity of nonprofit legal organizations serving seniors through training, coaching and support on nonprofit management.

I was reminded on the drive to Redding of exactly why the Justice Bus Project is so important to those seniors – and the rurally based nonprofit legal organizations trying to reach and serve them.  Because while that long stretch of highway with nothing around felt serene and beautiful as we were driving through, it also means that the seniors living in those areas can feel inescapably alone – and vulnerable to those who are looking for victims. Just like my great-aunt Clarabelle.

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Julia Wilson is honored to serve as the executive director of OneJusticeJulia R. Wilson is the executive director of OneJustice, where she is responsible for leading statewide advocacy efforts on behalf of the legal services delivery system, undertaking multiple statewide strategic planning initiatives, and serving as the legal services community’s liaison to key access to justice partners. At heart she is still a small town mid-western girl, who loves the urban energy of downtown San Francisco but craves the wide open horizon of big sky country.  Read more about Julia on our website.

You are part of the solution – and so is Diego Cartagena!

Removing barriers to justice takes a network. . . the OneJustice network.

OneJustice supports a network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses.  Each year this network provides life-saving legal help to over 275,000 Californians facing legal barriers to basic life necessities and core civil rights.  You – like everyone in our network – are an essential part of the solution to the fact that millions of our neighbors suffer needlessly from solvable legal problems.

In honor of the work that our network does, each month we’ll feature an interview with a different participant in the network. This month we interviewed Diego Cartagena, Pro Bono Director at Bet Tzedek Legal Services and a member of the OneJustice Board of Directors.

                                                                                                       

Diego, you have many years of experience managing pro bono delivery systems at various legal services programs in the OneJustice network.  How has that experience informed your work with OneJustice?

I started my career as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.  In launching the Teen LA project, I focused on helping to give low-income teen mothers and fathers a voice in court by providing them with legal advocacy and outreach in the areas of family and immigration law.  I then went on to serve as Pro Bono Director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, while simultaneously serving as the agency’s Probate Legal Guardianship Program Director.   Now I serve as the Pro Bono Director at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, where I continue to leverage the power of the private sector to provide much-needed legal assistance to our clients.

I have worked closely with OneJustice on a variety on pro bono projects during my time at Bet Tzedek and also the Alliance for Children’s Rights.  OneJustice supports a network of legal services nonprofits in the Southern California region, with a special focus on strengthening and expanding the pro bono delivery system.  With OneJustice’s staffing and support, we are able to come together and work jointly on collaborative pro bono programs – including the www.SoCalProBono.org website, joint MCLE trainings and events for pro bono volunteers, and strategic planning meetings for the Southern California region.  In my role as Pro Bono Director, I also work directly with OneJustice staff on all of these important efforts.

OneJustice supports a network of legal services nonprofits that collaborate on SoCalProBono.org.

Tell us about your most recent collaboration with OneJustice?

Recently I had the pleasure of working with OneJustice’s Los Angeles office – Senior Staff Attorney Monica Mar and Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow Cynthia Luna – to plan and deliver a Justice Bus Trip to serve seniors in Lancaster.  There is a substantial need for legal help for low-income seniors living in the Lancaster area, and it can be quite challenging to deliver services to them.

Through our Justice Bus collaborative, we traveled with six Southwestern law student volunteers to set up a free legal clinic at the Lancaster Senior Center. Thanks to OneJustice, in one single afternoon we were able to conduct intake interviews and even some on-the-spot advice and counsel for 22 seniors who had been on an extensive waitlist.  They are now on the path to having their legal issues addressed.  We hope to do more Justice Bus Trips with OneJustice in 2013!

What do you enjoy about working with OneJustice?

OneJustice is an innovative and forward-looking organization that always keeps its eye on the ultimate goal – expanding the legal help available to Californians who are facing legal barriers to basic life necessities.  I enjoy the truly generative work of the OneJustice Board to frame the service gaps in the state and identify ways to bridge those gaps, and then I appreciate being able to work together with OneJustice staff to make those creative ideas into on-the-ground projects that make a real difference in people’s lives.

Which of OneJustice’s initiatives for 2013 most excites you?

Seniors living in rural and isolated areas face additional barriers to justice. The Justice Bus delivers teams of volunteers to their community.

Of course as someone who started my career at agencies serving youth and children, I am proud of OneJustice’s initiative to expand services for families – particularly in the areas of immigration and special education.  Given my current work at Bet Tzedek – and the profound challenges of bringing much-needed legal help to seniors living in rural and isolated areas of the state – I have to say that I am most excited about the Seniors Legal Aid Fund that will ensure increased nonprofit management support for legal services organizations serving seniors and more Justice Bus Trips to bring teams of pro bono volunteers to help seniors in places like Lancaster and others.  I definitely will be involved in those efforts in 2013!

We make a life by what we give…….Happy #GivingTuesday!

A creative way we can all take a little U-turn back to giving thanks…..and giving…..in the middle of these days so focused on getting.

With two teenaged daughters in my house, the last several days were pretty focused on getting things!  Black Friday and Cyber Monday fascinated my daughters, who were appalled that our family didn’t have big plans for tracking down the deals.  Instead, we focused on shopping small on Small Business Saturday (see OneJustice’s last blog post), and today — Tuesday November 27 — we are fired up for #GivingTuesday, a creative new way to remind us all to give back in this season of giving thanks.

OneJustice is a proud partner in the first annual #GivingTuesday, the day that also marks the official opening day of the giving season.  We’re joining almost 2,000 nonprofits and corporations around the country to celebrate the work of nonprofits in our society – with the goal of driving donations of time, money, or services to charities with the same enthusiasm that shoppers have on Black Friday.

It is a beautifully simple idea, and one that calls on ideals and values that are at the core of American society.  First, find a way to give back – through your local school, faith-based organization, charity – maybe even through OneJustice!  Then tell others in your network about what you did – and why it matters.  #GivingTuesday is about reminding all of us that we are a generous people – with our time, our energy, and with our financial support.

How are you called to participate in acts of giving today, the first-ever #GivingTNovember 27, #GivingTuesdayuesday?

One way to celebrate #GivingTuesday is to Give the Gift of Justice to veterans facing legal barriers to benefits and medical care, vulnerable seniors living in rural and isolated areas of the state, and low-income children who need legal help to access new immigration programs or educational services.  Donate today to our Veterans, Seniors, or Children’s Legal Aid Funds, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar by a generous group of donors who are also exercising their generosity today as part of #GivingTuesday!

And then let’s all help spread the word!  Then take a picture of yourself with a piece of paper proudly saying that you “Gave the Gift of Justice” on “#GivingTuesday” and post it to the #GivingTuesday facebook page and also the OneJustice facebook page.

However you decide to give back to your community, we thank you! The world is a better place because of your generosity.  We look forward to celebrating #GivingTuesday with you every year.

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.

Happy Grandparents Day – and let’s not forget older Californians in need

Justice bus volunteer with senior client

OneJustice volunteers travel hours by bus to meet the legal needs of rural senior citizens.

Today on National Grandparents Day I count myself lucky to be able to celebrate my amazing grandmother, who – at 101 years old – has seen tremendous changes in our society and world.  I also count myself lucky to live close enough to be able to spend time with her – as do my teenaged daughters.

The origins of National Grandparents Day started in 1970 with Marian McQuade, a housewife in West Virginia.  She hoped to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide.  She also championed the cause of the lonely elderly living in nursing homes.  After years of advocacy, in 1978 a congressional resolution declaring National Grandparents Day as the first Sunday after Labor Day was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  Today, while I honor the many ways that my grandmother has influenced my life, I will also be thinking about the many older Californians who have not been as fortunate.

Over 390,000 Californians over the age of 65 live below the federal poverty levelMany of these seniors face a barrage of legal issues relating to access to health care, economic assistance benefits, housing, and food.  They also have legal needs relating to consumer debt issues, advanced planning and wills, residential and nursing home care, and caregivers issues – whether they are raising grandchildren or caring for an aging partner or spouse. In fact, more than 116,000 people over 60 in California have primary responsibility for the care of their minor grandchildren.  So on grandparents day, these older Californians are actually still handling the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting.

Volunteer helping a senior client

Justice Bus Trips bring volunteers to help seniors living in rural areas.

A 2011 study by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) found that county agencies serving seniors reported that the most serious challenges to the safety and well-being of seniors are primarily legal issues, including: elder abuse (including consumer fraud targeting seniors), housing issues (including discrimination, home repair, affordable housing), and bankruptcy/debt.  Elders who are LGBTQ, have limited English proficiency (LEP), or are low-income are particularly vulnerable and in need of legal assistance.  Sadly, the LAAC study also reported that older Californians frequently are not aware that free legal help may be available to them and may wait to consult an attorney until their situation has become a crisis.  OneJustice supports a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that provide critically important legal help to more than 35,000 low-income and vulnerable seniors each year.  

Older Californians living in rural areas face unique barriers to accessing the legal help they need.  “Growing old has never been easy.  The difficulties are especially pronounced in rural America because, census data shows, the country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee.  The elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs.” (The New York Times, For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times are distinctly Harder, December 10, 2009.) Despite the significant need, rural seniors have unique difficulties in finding help due to a lack of access to transportation, computer or internet access, language barriers, and geographic isolation.   In addition, due to limited resources, the few legal services organizations that exist to serve rural parts of the state are responsible for large geographic regions without sufficient staff.

Pinterest logo

Check out our Pinterest page for boards with resources on topics like guardianships, elder abuse, and simple estate planning.

This is why so many of our Justice Bus trips focus on meeting the legal needs of older Californians living in rural and isolated areas.  Our volunteer attorneys and law students travel hours by bus to set up traveling free legal clinics at senior centers, near medical clinics, in libraries and churches, and at senior assisted living facilities.  These volunteers work with local nonprofits in our network to bring life-saving legal help directly to seniors in need.  In isolated areas of counties like Napa, Tulare, and Mariposa, these Justice Bus clinics are often the only way older residents will have any access to legal assistance.  This is also why we created the website LawHelpCalifornia.org and our Pinterest page to post free downloadable resources on legal topics like guardianship, advanced health care directives and simple wills, and elder abuse.

The official flower of Grandparents Day is forget-me-not. On this day when we celebrate the heritage and wisdom of our grandparents, let us also remember the hundreds of thousands of older Californians who are alone today – alone facing pressing legal problems relating to basic life necessities.  By continuing to work together, we can build the resources needed to help them solve their legal problems.

What is YOUR favorite memory of time spent with a grandparent, or the most rewarding experience you have had helping a senior citizen?

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