Author Archives: Leah Laxamana

  1. Why Funding Civil Legal Services Is Smart Strategy

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    Helping to supply individuals, families, and the community with civil legal services that they otherwise could not afford is an impactful funding strategy that dramatically and effectively improves people’s quality of life. That’s what the Walter & Elise Haas Fund has grown to recognize over years of collaboration with our grantee partners.

    The Background on Civil Legal Services Support

    When a person faces a criminal charge, the United States Constitution gives each of us the right to a public defender, paid for by the government. If that same person is involved in a civil legal matter, such as one threatening the loss of one’s home or employment, or one addressing domestic violence — even if the outcome of that case is as potentially life-changing as a prison sentence would be — they must either pay for their own lawyer or represent themselves.

    Many cannot adequately do either.

    By increasing access to civil legal services, we can help keep the otherwise manageable issues families and individuals face from turning into larger, catastrophic problems. Perhaps someone is the victim of an illegal eviction, which forces them into homelessness. Or racial discrimination at work hinders their advancement and keeps them from earning a living wage. Considering that there’s only one legal aid lawyer available for about every 8,350 low-income Californians, scenarios such as these aren’t unlikely or even infrequent.

    If individuals or families fall into crisis, they might need to rely on other safety net services — services that quickly cost the government far more than civil legal support would have. Not only will individuals, families, and the community endure more suffering — and perhaps even irreversible harm — they also might do so when a different funding strategy had a good chance of circumventing the crisis in the first place.

    The Fund has invested in organizations that provide civil legal services support as part of our Safety Net program since the 2008 recession, as well as through our Economic Security and Disaster Preparedness grantmaking. We’ve learned three general lessons from our experience:

    1. Philanthropic investment in civil legal services is both cost effective and impactful.

    Legal aid is the least funded human service in the United States. It is also one of the most effective ways to disrupt the drivers of poverty.

    People with low-incomes facing civil challenges are far more likely to win their case when they have an attorney — five-times as likely in immigration cases. In housing cases, 90% of landlords have attorneys compared to only 10% of tenants, and as a result the majority of tenants lose their cases. Those numbers indicate a dramatic, but unsurprising, level of impact. When you take into consideration that civil legal support for someone newly homeless, or who’s on the verge of homelessness, costs from $2,000 to $5,000 that factor of impact increases further: it costs the system up to $100,000 per year to support just one unhoused person with social services, medical care, and cash benefits.

    Some legal service organizations measure their social return on investment — that’s the financial value created through the services they provide. Results have shown that investment in this work generates higher returns when compared to other sectors.

    • Open Door Legal provides access to legal services to San Francisco residents with low-incomes, offering full representation in more than 35 areas of civil law. For every dollar Open Door Legal spends, $6.63 in financial benefit is created for the people it serves, and $14.75 in loss from potential illegal activity is prevented.
    • Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) works statewide to strengthen civil organizations through advocacy for increased funding for legal services. It provides trainings for attorneys and fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing. The Fund’s support for LAAC goes on to benefit a number of grantee partners, extending the impact of this grantmaking.

    2. Civil legal aid can mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 and racial injustice

    The needs of people of color and people with low incomes have increased dramatically as they disproportionately bear the impacts of COVID-19. Access to civil legal services — legal advice, representation in court, and resources and other self-help tools — goes a long way in helping with challenges that have only grown more severe during the pandemic.

    While civil legal services support isn’t directly designed to confront the pandemic, it is an effective line of defense against problems exacerbated by the pandemic — or by racial injustice or many other problems.

    For example, some of our grantee partners protect individuals and families from income loss and the increased threat of evictions. The pandemic has dramatically increased the need for this support.

    • Legal Aid at Work advances low-income workers’ rights to wages, workplace protections, and other benefits by providing individualized counsel and conducting public policy efforts.
    • Eviction Defense Collaborative provides rental assistance, emergency eviction defense services, tenant rights education, and advocacy for clients living in shelters.
    • East Bay Community Law Center combines specialized, emergency direct services with state and local advocacy to help vulnerable residents while also training future attorneys to become advocates for racial and economic justice.

    The Fund also sponsors a Post-Graduate Law Fellow through the Legal Services Funders Network (LSFN). Due to the pandemic, the regular California Bar Exam scheduled for July was cancelled — and that means recent law school graduates won’t have the opportunity to pass the Bar and practice law until later. Through LSFN’s fellowship program, 30 recent graduates of Bay Area law schools have received their Practical Training of Law Students Certification (PTLS) and are increasing the capacity of Bay Area legal services organizations during the pandemic.

    In short, the rate at which people of color need legal help due to unfair and illegal treatment is disproportionate. Racism shows up not just in police misconduct, but in the way creditors, landlords, employers, and more choose to treat people of color differently. Therefore, legal services organizations are well-positioned to address racial injustice effectively.

    3. The time to fund civil legal services is now

    Even before COVID-19, the Legal Services Corporation reported that 71% of American households experience at least one civil legal problem. And 86% of the civil legal problems reported by Americans with low incomes were tackled with insufficient, or zero legal assistance. With the pandemic, the situation has grown even more dire.

    A recent study predicts at least a 40% increase in homelessness in 2020 if no major steps are taken. Timely access to civil legal services can — and should — play a critical role in providing support and in preventing problems from escalating.

    Beyond the grantees previously mentioned, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund also supports:

    • Legal Link, which expands the amount of legal navigation support available. It trains non-lawyers to identify legal issues and connect people with help. This entails forging partnerships with Bay Area social service providers, some of which are also supported by the Fund.
    • Legal Access Alameda, which launched a hotline and created a training program for law students and lawyers to support those facing legal challenges following disasters.

    For those of our philanthropic peers seeking an effective response to this pandemic or the systemic problems it has exacerbated, civil legal aid has strengthened our impact and could do the same for you. In California, State Bar-funded legal organizations reported in 2019 that they were only able to serve 30% of the more than 450,000 civil legal problems presented to them mainly due to lack of resources — this presents an opportunity for funders to make a significant difference in addressing the justice gap.

    For more information, contact Legal Services Funders Network as a logical next step in understanding the needs and opportunities in the civil legal services field.

  2. Hunger Action Month

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    Although the United States is one of the world’s largest food producers and food exporters, 40 million of us — including more than 12 million children and five million seniors — lack consistent access to enough food. Worse, with deepening economic disparity and new federal policy changes, these already too-large numbers could rise dramatically.

    This September, as part of Hunger Action Month, we’re asked to join with food banks across the nation to fight hunger. And, as we respond to that request for action, we also want to add awareness. Knowing how significantly hunger afflicts our neighbors, and understanding how many more of us could soon be confronted with food insecurity, amplifies the need this month — and year-round.

    The Good News

    In the past decade, the Fund has allocated more than $3.5 million to Safety Net grantees that help the people in our community escape hunger. The list of grantees includes Building Futures, Davis Street, Meals on Wheels, Mercy Brown Bag Program, St. Anthony’s, and St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County. Additionally, some of our Jewish Life portfolio grantees — Challah for Hunger, MAZON, and Urban Adamah — shed light on hunger issues, advocate for systems change, and use food as a way to connect to Jewish values.

    A portion of our Safety Net grantmaking supports policy and advocacy work, too, such as that undertaken by the California Association of Food Banks, California Food Policy Advocates, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. The approach these organizations take has led to key policy wins, including the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Cashout reversal that took effect this past June. This policy change will enable at least 500,000 very low income seniors and disabled children in California to receive CalFresh benefits of $190/month for groceries. Another significant policy win includes guaranteeing access to free and reduced-price meals for more than 340,000 low-income students who attend charter schools in California.

    Today’s Challenges

    These victories been tempered by setbacks. In July, the Federal administration proposed that the residents of 43 states who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families be disallowed from automatically qualifying for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka CalFresh). The Food Research and Action Center estimates that 3.1 million low-income people will lose SNAP benefits and over 500,000 children will lose access to free school meals if this rule gets implemented.

    The Federal administration also recently finalized the “public charge rule,” which is scheduled to take effect on October 15. This rule changes how the Department of Homeland Security determines whether immigrants are likely to become dependent on government support. Until now, the long-standing policy primarily only took receipt of cash assistance and long-term institutional care into consideration when considering immigration applications. The new rule brings other public benefits — including SNAP, Medicaid, and housing assistance — into purview. That will make it more difficult for moderate and low-income people to immigrate to the United States legally. It will also instill fear and confusion among prospective legal immigrants who receive public benefits.

    Our grantee partners already report that their clients have stopped accessing benefits following the announcement of this new rule. The California Budget & Policy Center estimates this change could push up to 165,000 Californians into poverty and another 115,000 into deep poverty if they avoid housing subsidies and food assistance such as CalFresh. California could also lose out on $1.67 billion in federal support.

    While the Fund has signed on to a Northern California Grantmakers letter contesting the public charge rule, the rule remains scheduled to take effect. When it does, it will force low-income people to choose between feeding themselves and staying in the U.S. legally.

    Hunger and Health

    Fighting hunger is also about health. Food organizations have long recognized the connection between access to nutritious food and improved health. This study — in which Alameda County Community Food Bank was a participant — proves food banks are well-positioned to play an important role. Food banks have transitioned to provide meals comprised of up to 60% fresh produce as opposed to packaged or canned food. And the SF-Marin Food Bank partners with health clinics to operate farmers’ market style “Food Pharmacies” that provide access to nutrition advice and health screenings.

    In addition, Project Open Hand is collaborating with the California Department of Health Care Services in the country’s first statewide Medically Tailored Meals pilot program. This is designed to cut down hospital and emergency department 30-day and 90-day readmissions for Medi-Cal patients with congestive heart failure. Not only do preventive approaches like these improve the health and well-being of communities, they can also lead to health care savings, with heart failure costing the healthcare system $30.7 billion annually.

    The Fund is grateful for the opportunity to support the organizations in our portfolio who inspire us with their creativity and resilience in the face of mounting challenges. It will take a collective effort from all to ensure that nobody goes hungry. During this Hunger Action Month, we hope you will consider how you can take action to end hunger.

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