I-Team Report: Defenseless

January 10, 2012 10:00:00 PM PST
There are 40 organizations in the Chicago area that provide free or subsidized legal assistance.

Leaders of the largest service groups tell the I-Team that foreclosures and domestic violence have greatly increased their calls for help. But many poor and unemployed are being left defenseless, the victims of budget cuts.

As one of the largest free legal aid organizations in the area, Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago helped a total of 60,000 people in 2010. More than a third were provided with attorneys.

In 2011, LAF lost more than $550,000 and executive director Diana White recently received the news that her organization will lose $1.1 million in federal funding for 2012, will have to cut staff by 15 percent and will likely face even less funding in 2013.

"There was a lot of pacing up and down the halls saying, oh, this is very bad. So we are going to be losing 21 people out of a work force of 175," said White.

Unemployment has added thousands of "new poor" to the 16.9 percent of Cook County's residents already living at the poverty level. That has led to housing problems and domestic violence and more people needing help in unfamiliar circumstances.

People already in dire straits now find themselves affected by federal budget cuts to legal aid programs.

"Without them, people like us, they'll just kick us to the side," said Loretta Mitchell.

Mitchell says her housing voucher was wrongly taken from her and is now homeless. She is meeting with an LAF attorney for the first time.

"Our stories will never be heard, our cases will never be heard therefore we'll never get any help, just like me, there will be another homeless person out on the street," said Mitchell.

"We are already swimming upstream. There are a million and a half poor people in Cook County who qualify for our services, we go to 150 percent of poverty, that's $33,000 a year for a family of four. That's tough to live on," said White.

Budget cuts have forced the hotline to close after the first 50 viable calls, leaving hundreds of people every day without legal help.

And it's not just the LAF. The I-Team spoke with other groups that offer legal help for free or on a sliding payment scale: - Chicago Volunteer Legal Services reports the group suffered state funding cuts and a 15 percent drop in contributions from the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. Plus private law firm donations are down 25 percent. - the Chicago Legal Clinic saw twice as many people last year due to foreclosures and no additional funding. - the Legal Aid Society reports a 40 percent increase in need last year while its federal grants were recently slashed by 18 percent, on top of a $90,000 cut in state funds in 2009.

"As a society, if we don't have as a bedrock in conviction that justice shouldn't depend on whether you can hire a lawyer, we are in big trouble," said White.

An Indiana University study released today found that 10 million more Americans are now living in poverty than before the recession. It is clear that without adequate legal help, the unemployed and so-called "new poor" may linger at the poverty level.

For those in need of legal help and are living at or near the poverty level AND for those who would like to donate or volunteer, here are some of the forty programs that offer services:

1) The Legal Assistance Foundation Of Chicago
All matters except class actions, criminal, environmental, real estate, probate and tax
(312) 341-1070

2) Chicago Volunteer Legal Services
All matters except criminal, civil rights and environmental
(312) 332-1624

3) The Chicago Legal Clinic
www.clclaw.org/default.html cvls.org
Legal services in areas including: adoption, bankruptcy, child custody and support, debt elimination, divorces, employment, environmental issues, guardianship, immigration landlord-tenant, real estate transactions, Social Security benefits, traffic accidents, wills and probate and workers compensation. If you do not qualify for free services you can still receive services based on the amount you can afford to pay (773) 731-1762 (773) 731-1762

4) The Legal Aid Society
Handles only family law matters
(312) 986-4200