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Legal Clinics Help Poor Keep a Roof Overhead

Ann Marie Staudenmaier of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says the shrinking supply of affordable housing helps create legal problems for the poor.
Ann Marie Staudenmaier of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says the shrinking supply of affordable housing helps create legal problems for the poor. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Henri Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Erica Bermudo isn't homeless, and doesn't want to be, which is why she found herself sitting among the homeless one morning last month, looking for legal help.

She is bipolar, she said, and has more than $5,000 in credit-card debt, accumulated before she graduated last year from the University of Maryland, before her illness was under control.

Now, with collection agencies hounding her and no promising job prospects, Bermudo, 28, fears she could end up evicted from the room she rents for $375 a month in Northwest Washington.

"There's only 23 cents in my bank account," she told the lawyers sitting across from her.

Desperate to stave off her creditors, she wants to file for bankruptcy, she says, so she has come to a downtown church where the homeless are fed and where the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless sets up shop for an hour each week.

Whether it's the threat of losing government food aid or the prospect of being evicted, the legal problems faced by poor people can carry devastating consequences. And unlike people who are arrested, people in other sorts of legal trouble aren't guaranteed the assistance of a lawyer.

For decades, legal service organizations such as the Legal Clinic for the Homeless have sought to provide that sort of assistance, and many people have been helped by such services.

But in the District, such efforts have reached only a fraction of the people who need them, advocates for the poor say, and that has spawned a broad effort to expand the reach of civil legal services for people who cannot afford lawyers.

The D.C. Access to Justice Commission, created in 2005 by the D.C. Court of Appeals, has been lobbying for more money for such services, and the commission scored a notable victory in the fall.

The D.C. Council approved more than $3 million to help organizations hire more lawyers and to help pay off the law school loans of lawyers who choose to work in poverty law.

Last month, the D.C. Bar Foundation, which is administering the new money from the city, began sending out checks to a number of organizations, including Legal Counsel for the Elderly, the Whitman-Walker Legal Clinic and the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.

The bar foundation has long had a role in supporting the work of such organizations, channeling money, pro bono work and other contributions from Washington's law firms to organizations that serve the poor. It was a study by the foundation, released in 2003, that laid the groundwork for the efforts underway now, and the need has been building, advocates say.

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