Gladys Camp of College Park, who had to quit her job because of a disability, called legal aid after she was turned down for Social Security payments. With the legal help, she began receiving payments.
Geraldine Watkins, 57, a victim of arthritis, is unable to work. She tried for nine years to get Social Security payments for which she was eligible because of her illness. Finally, the Kensington woman contacted the Montgomery County Legal Aid Bureau for help this spring. She will begin getting monthly checks in the fall.
"If it weren't for Legal Aid, there wouldn't be no justice for nobody poor," said Watkins, who has five grown children. "Because if they weren't there to guide you and help you, where would you go? It's only the rich who could . . . get a lawyer."
Collier, Camp and Watkins are among the approximately 1,840 disabled, poor and aged people who have turned for help to the Legal Aid bureaus in Prince George's and Montgomery counties in the past year. Now the federal budget ax hovers over legal aid, and its future is uncertain.
To save money and "maximize expertise," the two bureaus have merged operations and will begin seeing clients next week in their new office at 1040 University Blvd. in Langley Park, near the boundary between the two counties.
The new phone numbers are 445-0200 for Prince George's legal aid, 445-3200 for the Prince George's program for the elderly, and 445-1202 for Montgomery County legal aid.
The decision to merge was made last winter. Now, in the face of the proposed heavy budget reductions, the need to economize has become critical.
"We knew that there would be cuts down the line, so we decided to merge to save money," said Linda Haspel, chief attorney for the Montgomery Legal Aid Bureau. "We just never thought our program would be cut so drastically."
President Reagan has sought to abolish the Legal Services Corporation, which provides 70 percent of the funding for local legal aid offices. The other 30 percent comes from the Older Americans Act to pay for legal assistance to senior citizens.
Congress is expected to preserve the corporation, but with drastically reduced funds. The proposed cuts would reduce the corporation's fiscal 1981 budget of $321.3 million by 25 to 30 percent for next year.
The Montgomery Legal Aid Bureau received $185,673 to finance its operations in fiscal 1981, and the Prince George's office got $275,000. Haspel predicts that if the proposed reductions are approved, the two offices will have to trim their combined staff from the present total of 14 legal workers to six.
"Because funding is so unclear we don't know what will happen. We could get something or nothing," she said, adding that even if the smallest cut proposed is the one passed, the two counties will still "lose a legal assistant and a lawyer for each of the bureaus."
Meanwhile, Haspel and Tim Paulus, chief attorney for the Prince George's bureau, are looking for alternative services so their clients will have somewhere to turn when the funds are cut.
In the past, help was available from Judicare, a program also funded by the Legal Services Corporation under which private attorneys were paid to represent people who could not afford a lawyer.
But the state Department of Human Services, which channels the money to attorneys, will not issue any contracts for the next two years, Haspel said. All the Judicare funds budgeted for the next two years will be needed to pay fees of private attorneys who have already accepted contracts to represent indigent clients.
The Department of Social Services had been issuing 125 contracts a month, Haspel said.
Haspel said she and Paulus are asking members of the county bar associations to take some cases.
The state bar association plans to establish a volunteer program in which private attorneys agree to take on some Legal Aid Bureau cases, the majority of which are unemployment compensation cases, landlord-tenant disputes, Social Security benefit cases and health and medical care issues. The target date for starting this program is Oct. 1.
"All the cases they can't or won't handle, we will," Haspel said.
The bleak outlook concerns former clients as well as legal aid workers.
"If it weren't for legal services I wouldn't be where I am today," James Collier said. "When they cut out legal aid, a lot of people in P.G. county will be hurt. Reagan's cutting out the program will hurt all us poor people."
"I think people will lose a lot of things due them because of ignorance," said Helen Danish, 64, of Brentwood, who is the guardian for James Cochran, a 46-year-old retarded man.
Cochran was informed by the state Department of Social Services that he was no longer eligible for medical assistance after he received a cost-of-living increase in his Social Security payments.
Danish went to the legal aid office, where attorney Harriette Taylor found a department regulation which covered the situation, making Cochran eligible for both benefits.
"These are things an ordinary person would not know about . . . unless you can get a lawyer yourself. I wouldn't have known about this if it hadn't been for them (legal aid lawyers). They helped us out a great deal," Danish said.
"I think senior citizens will be cheated if legal services is cut," said Gladys Camp, who now receives Social Security disability benefits after getting help from legal aid. "So many services are being cut out, it's overwhelming. And the little man is being stomped on and the rich man is reaping the profits."