Low-income Hispanos and residents of Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan can get free legal help at a new branch of the Neighborhood Legal Services program that opened recently.
The federally funded legal aid program, which operates six offices throughout the city, opened its seventh branch in a community center operated by the Community of Christ Church, 3166 Mount Pleasant St. NW.
Its staff of three lawyers are the only Spanish-speaking attorneys working for Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS). NLS director Willie E. Cook said the attorneys provide free legal help to low-income resident who speak Spanish or who live in the Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan areas of the city. The two secretaries in the office also speak Spanish.
NLS is funded by the Legal Services Corp., a federal agency that financially supportess legal aid programs around the country. The local legal aid program has operated in Washington since 1964 and helped 11,000 persons last year, Cook said. Its annual budget is $1.5 million.
According to federal guidelines, the office can assist only persons who qualify as low income. A single person may make no more than $72 a week in take-home pay, a couple $91 and each dependent $20, under federal regulations. A family with two dependants, for example, can earn up to $131 in weekly take-home pay and still qualify for low-income aid. Recently, about 50 persons ate empanadas and drank sangria at the center, also known as La Casa, to celebrate the opening of the new office.
"this community is a rich source of culture for our city," City Council Member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) told the gathering. "this is a community where people of all races, of all nationalities and of all colors can come together and not only say we can tolerate each other, but we like each other. And that is attractive to other people.
Clarke warned that this attraction is drawing new people to Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant and has resulted in displacement of many low-income residents, creating severe housing problems.
Luis Espada-Platet, a Puerto Rican attorney who heads the new office, predicted that housing will head the list of legal problems the center handles. "Our clients tend to get whatever housing problems there are in the city. Poor people tend to be hit with them in a big way," he said. "spanish-speaking people have the same problems as everyone else, but have more because of the language barriers."
Another area of assistance, he said, is in public benefits such as Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment compensation.
"the government dosn't always do what it is supposed to do in following the laws and regulations of these programs, so you need lawyers to deal with the problems that people have," Espada-Platet said.
Other legal help will include immigration assistance, consumer problems, employment discrimination and prison reform, but not criminal charges, he said.
Cook said that besides aiding individuals, the agency loks for cases that will aid large numbers of low-income persons.
In 1975, NLS won a lawsuit against the District government, forcing it to process welfare cases within 45 days. Last fall, the orgnization filed an administrative complaint against the city housing office, claiming it was not providing relocation services for low-income residents displaced by city projects. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development withheld $32 million slated for the city until the housing office agreed to comply with HUD regulations and help dislocated persons find alternatives housing.
Espada-Platet said he could not predict what kind of case the Mount Pleasant office might pursue to benefit large numbers of persons, but suggested that mny will deal with immigration programs.
He said his office probably will work closely with Ayuda, a United Way-funded legal assistance office on Columbia Road, where two Spanish speaking attorneys offer lefal help to Hispano residents. Aida berio, newly appointed director of the city Hispanic Affair Office who represented Mayor Marion Barry at Sunday's affair, hailed the opening of the office.
"i sincerely feel that this office will fulfill a very important function for people because I find most Spanish-speaking people need orientation in what their rights are and what their obligations are," she said. She added that the demise two years ago of the city's only Spanish language radio station has hampered communications among city's Spanish-speaking population.
"(Spanish-speaking) people here are completely in the dark as far as legal rights," she added.
Neighborhood residents at the party said they welcomed the advent of a legal assistance office on Mount Pleasant Street.
"I think it's really good," said Kim Tieger, a parttime lobbyist and artist who lives around the corner on Kilbourne Street. "I would come if I needed it," She said two years ago she was involved in a land-lord-tenant dispute and sought assistance from the George Washington University law clinic. CAPTION: Picture, Mount Pleasant residents celebrate opening of new Neighborhood Legal Source office. By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post.