By Stacey Singer DeLoye
Located within the Leon County Courthouse near the Capitol, the Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee connects more than 120 volunteer attorneys per year to low-income Floridians faced with complex civil matters such as landlord-tenant disputes and child custody concerns.
Getting to the foundation requires finding parking or public transportation, and then passing through heavy security including metal detectors, during business hours only. With the help of a Promise Zone grant from the City of Tallahassee, in 2016 the Legal Aid Foundation, a Florida Bar Foundation grantee, is trying an additional approach: sending volunteer and staff attorneys into the neighborhoods that need them most, and meeting clients at times and in places most convenient for them, for up to a half hour each.
The program is called Mobile Law for All, and during the American Bar Association’s Celebrate Pro Bono Week Oct. 23-29, the Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee is highlighting the new project as one effective way for attorneys to broaden access to justice. The next Mobile Law for All clinic, to be held Oct. 25, will mark the eighth since the program began in April, said Ivory Avant, an attorney with a master’s degree in social work who oversees the project. That clinic will be at the Jack McLean Community Center located at 700 Paul Russell Road, Tallahassee. In just over six months, 105 people have met with attorneys, she said.
“I feel like the idea is genius. We go to the areas where people live, and we try to host them after people get home from work,” Avant said. “I love the one-on-one, especially when I am able to make a difference for someone who feels they may have hit a wall and their life is in shambles. You see a heavy cloud lifted when they can talk about it and understand more about what’s happening.”
One fairly typical case involved a disabled couple whose landlord abruptly rescinded an agreement to accept reduced rent from them, amid hardship.
“They were threatened with being forced to move out that day,” Avant said. With the help of the Mobile Law for All project, they gained the time they needed to find a new apartment. “When they did have to move, they were prepared and weren’t in crisis,” she said.
The idea for the Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee’s Mobile Law for All project grew out of an initiative first described by President Barack Obama his 2013 State of the Union Address, to focus on communities with high poverty rates in an effort to create jobs, attract more private investment, increase economic activity, expand educational opportunities, and reduce violent crime in those zones.
Tallahassee and Leon County officials worked jointly on an application to gain a Promise Zone designation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Although the application wasn’t one of the few selected, the work illuminated much about the region’s economically disadvantaged areas, and galvanized local leaders’ interest in implementing their plan to improve them. They set aside $480,651 for grants to further the mission, with $100,000 coming from Leon County, and $380,651 from the city of Tallahassee.
The Mobile Law for All project has received a local Promise Zone grant and extension worth over $80,000 over 18 months, said Darby Kerrigan Scott, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation. The grant has enabled the foundation to hire Avant to coordinate the project, the first time in the foundation’s 48-year history that it has had a staff attorney, Scott said. Going out into the community is enabling the foundation to reach people who would never have otherwise sought help, such as those facing hunger and homelessness.
“The vast majority of people tell us they did not know of the services we offered and what was available until we went into their community and brought it to their doorstep,” Scott said. “The concept of providing targeted services in the areas that need them most has been really exciting.”
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