Ask Durwood James about the need for free legal help and he'll tell you what it means to be down and out, without a dime. James, 29, a single parent who was illegally evicted from his apartment last July along with his 3-month-old daughter, will tell you that without the help of a poor man's law firm, "me and my baby would still be out on the street, just destitude. A lot of poor people would just be lost without it."
Thousands of poor people throughout the nation will be at a loss if the Legal Services Corporation, the only federally funded legal assistance program that provides them with free legal representation in noncriminal cases, is wiped out.
The agency will be abolished in January if Congress votes to approve President Ronald Reagan's budget proposal calling for the agency to receive "zero funding."
Established in 1964 as one of the most radical and liberal facets of former president Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty program, the corporation operates about 300 separate legal services programs out of 90 offices nationwide. Seven of those offices are in D.C., operated under the auspices of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program.
Willie Cook, executive director of the local offices, says NLS represents about 10,000 clients each year in the city. Most of their legal problems concern landlord-tenant disputes, consumer law, welfare and Social Security regulations, family matters, unemployment compensation and credit hassles. However routine they may seem, these problems often create major crises for the poor.
Usually, clients ask the 36 NLS attorneys to find late welfare checks or some other kind of emergency assistance. The attorneys often solve the problems by making a few phone calls to the appropriate government agencies. But, in many cases, the NLS his filed court suits against Landlords and city government agencies. In several court cases, NLS lawyers have not only won legal battles that have given their individual clients what they wanted, but have also significantly changed public policies that directly affect the lives of thousands of poor people, such as winning for welfare clients the right to appeal decisions denying them benefits, and establishing a strict time limit on processing welfare applications.
But, because of the lawyers' zealous readiness to challenge the status quo, conservatives throughout the nation have criticized the attorneys and labeled them "ideological rabblerousers, who focus on social causes, not civil cases.
Still, in the majority of its cases, the NLS simply performs timely legal services -- like arguing at a welfare services hearing or landlord tenant court -- that help their clients maintain order in their day-to-day living. Durwood James' case is one of those.
Early last year, James' landlord told him that he was going to remodel the "rinky-dink" one-bedroom apartment on Alabama Avenue SE where James lived with his wife Alicia and newborn baby Wilma. Three weeks later, however, the landlord constructed a plasterboard wall in the middle of the living room, announced that he was changing the one-bedroom into a two-bedroom apartment, then moved in another small family. James says the landlord, Nathaniel Cain, charged the new family the same rent he charged James -- $200.
James, unemployed at the time, says he repeatedly complained to Cain about the "very cramped" conditions and asked him to move the second family to another apartment. But, after a month, Cain still had not responded to his complaints, so James began to withhold his rent.
On a steamy day last July, James, whose emotionally disturbed wife finally deserted him because of the living conditions, went home with his daughter in his arms, and discovered that his landlord had changed the lock on the door, stuffed all of his clothes in two large, black trash bags and had thrown them out on the sidewalk. A note on the door told him to: "Pack your bags and leave. Your bags are already packed, so just leave."
James called the police, who could only put him and his daughter in a motel for the night. The next day he couldn't find Cain and he couldn't get the family he shared the apartment with to help him. That night, he and his baby girl slept outside in a downtown park area. "We were flat out on the street and flat broke until our welfare check came through," James says.
The next morning, after taking to several community-based organizations and government agencies, James found out that he needed legal help. Someone at one of the agencies suggested that he go to the Neighborhood Legal Services office in Congress Heights.
Louise Tarantino, a Legal Services attorney, was assigned to James' case. She immediately filed for a temporary restraining order to force Cain to allow James to move back into his apartment and later won an out-of-court settlement of $1,000, which she says Cain owed James due to a break in their original lease agreement.
"The people at NLS reassure you that they will do all that is possible to combat your legal battles, and a few weeks later you see the results and you feel better about living; you can go on with life," says James, who recently started working as a security guard and is filing for divorce.
The NLS Congress Heights office, at 2804 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, serves one of D.C.'s most highly concentrated areas of low-income, poorly educated people and is thus one of the busiest legal services offices. Dalton Howard, manager of the Congress Heights office, says people like James are typical clients. All that is needed to qualify for NLS services if proof of being poor -- a parent of two making $112 of week or less is an example of who qualifies in D.C.
"People who come to us are lacking in formal education and they don't have any clout with the power structure." Howard says."They know they're entitled to something, but they don't know how to go about getting it. They come to us to fight for their cause."
Now that Reagan's budget-cutting hatchet is looming, NLA has a fight of its own to wage. "We've got to fight for our existence," Howard says. NLS representatives are testifying at congressional hearings in support of their program and urging their clients and others in the legal profession to rally behind them as well.
If the corporation, which received $321 million last year, is wiped out of the federal budget, then smaller, privately funded agencies that offer legal aid to the poor will be heavily burdened by the masses of people in need of such services, Cook says.
The program could be saved under the block grant program, but Cook says that would considerably weaken its effectiveness, because it would then be placed under the control of state governments and would receive far less funding.
"Landlords and others will gladly take advantage of poor people when they think they can get away with it," Cook says. "How will the poor fight back without legal representation?"