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Foundation awards $1.45 million in coronavirus relief grants

virtual legal aid

Most legal aid program staff continue to work remotely on matters. For the safety of staff and clients, the Foundation is using stock photography to represent virtual legal aid instead of photographing lawyers and clients.

The Florida Bar Foundation has awarded $1,454,993 in grants to 24 legal aid organizations for COVID-19 relief efforts.

“There is an urgent need for legal services arising from the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn,” Foundation President Stephen R. Senn said. “Many Floridians are finding themselves newly out of work or at risk of eviction, both of which lead to a host of other legal problems. The legal services that our grantees provide are a lifeline.”

In June, the Foundation’s board of directors approved transferring unspent grant funds allocated for fiscal year 2019-20, about $1.17 million, to a special fund to address COVID-19 relief efforts.

An additional $16,995 from donor gifts and $258,390 in remaining Bank of America  settlement principal was used to fund the grants.

In an effort to streamline the grant process so that grantees would receive funds quickly, the Foundation surveyed legal aid organizations to determine the number of full-time staff who work on housing, domestic violence and benefits matters. It then used those numbers to equitably divide the grant funds.

Sixty percent of funds were used to fund housing staff, 30% on domestic violence and 10% on benefits. The funds must be used for direct legal assistance.

“Access to justice is critical during a crisis,” said Monica Vigues-Pitan, president of the Florida Civil Legal Aid Association. “Our legal advocacy is ensuring access to safe and affordable housing, healthcare, education, vital government assistance, preserving income, and guaranteeing safety during these difficult times. Legal aid organizations will use these funds to serve the emerging legal needs of our client population.”

As the state’s eviction moratorium expires, legal aid programs expect a severe spike in eviction filings. According to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, more than a million Floridians are behind in their rent. It expects to see approximately 750,000 evictions filed in Florida over the next four months.

According to the Household Pulse Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, more than 40% of Miami-Dade residents were either not able to pay their rent last month or don’t expect to be able to pay this coming month. More than 32% of adults in Florida reported that they are facing housing insecurity, the second-highest rate across all 50 states.

Low-income and vulnerable Floridians are seeking legal assistance at higher rates. From March to August 2020, visits to The Florida Bar Foundation’s Covid Legal Aid page on its website increased 715%. There was also a 415% increase in visits to the Foundation’s list of legal aid providers.