By Karen Nicolson
Covid-19 is impacting low-income communities, communities of color and older adults disproportionately. This should not be surprising, as those communities have long-standing disparities in health and health care.
As the crisis continues, more challenges are revealed regarding the health and economic hardships facing our society. Moreover, the outbreak in our region alone leaves countless people with new and unanticipated legal challenges: securing unemployment benefits, staying housed, guarding against abuse and much more.
Throughout New York State, legal services providers and volunteers have quickly adapted to serve as many people as they can through remote client consultations, virtual clinics and representation in emergency hearings by phone.
As New York starts the slow reopening process, civil legal services programs will find themselves overwhelmed. Millions of New Yorkers are now eligible for our services – many for the first time.
Before the pandemic, legal services programs were struggling to meet about half the legal needs of low-income people. Even without any cuts to funding, the increased demand for these services will be staggering.
We likely all know someone unable to pay their rent or mortgage, due to missed paychecks and strained finances. Civil legal-aid programs have already been inundated with requests for help from tenants and homeowners worried about how they will avoid eviction when they will be months behind on their payments.
Unemployment, medical debt and foreclosures will skyrocket once the courts open again.
Civil Legal Services attorneys are ready to meet these needs, but we need help.
New York State has historically been supportive of civil legal aid. Indeed, we applaud the governor for mobilizing pro bono attorneys to help with unemployment claims. But this crisis cannot be solved by volunteers alone.
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, there must be legal representation for as many low-income people as possible. The private bar and the legal services community are committed to working together to further develop this system. With so many Western New Yorkers in need, this is the time to reaffirm our commitment to provide justice for all.
Substantial and sustained support for civil legal services must be part of our government’s short- and long-term policy responses to Covid-19. We can see the needs now, and we know what’s coming.
New York’s civil legal services providers are on the front lines right now, helping our state meet the crisis head on. We will continue to be an essential piece of New York’s recovery efforts.
Karen Nicolson is CEO of the Center for Elder Law & Justice, Buffalo.