Chandi Bozeman had never applied for unemployment compensation. But when the state of Ohio issued a stay-at-home order in late March, Bozeman was forced to shut down her salon in Dayton and join the 1.3 million Ohioans seeking government assistance. 

The process was “difficult and confusing,” Bozeman said. She was denied benefits.

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) saw Bozeman voice her frustration in a CNN interview and reached out to her. With their help, she is now receiving assistance. 

The pandemic has restricted the growth of almost every sector, with public health measures deeming visits to the grocery store, graduation celebrations and even doctor’s appointments unsafe. But as thousands file for unemployment and stay-at-home orders exacerbate issues with housing and domestic violence, one overlooked service has been forced to expand its role: legal aid.

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), and its partner firm, Legal Aid of Western Ohio (LAWO), advocate for and represent economically disadvantaged people from the 32 counties of western Ohio. Their work encompasses various types of civil cases, including domestic violence, public benefits and health care access. As COVID-19 loomed over the Midwest, the two organizations saw an increase in clients directly related to the pandemic. 

But the effects on the firms were not immediate.

“We actually had a slow time period towards the beginning of the pandemic when the number of people contacting us for legal help actually decreased at first,” Heather Hall, Director of Advocacy for ABLE, said. “People were concerned about more immediate needs like food and shelter and what they needed to survive.”

Hall says this lag between COVID-19’s arrival in the Midwest and the increase in clients gave the organizations time to prepare and “get up to speed with changes in the law because of the pandemic.” They moved their services to online platforms, created guides for the community, and began to provide face masks for both clients and advocates.

Soon enough, calls to the firms’ legal helpline began rolling in. For the past few months, the partner firms have been receiving more cases related to unemployment insurance, housing and domestic violence than usual. 

Hall explained that some of these issues are exacerbated by the lack of clarity and language access in pandemic assistance programs. For many, the need to apply for assistance is unprecedented, and these Ohioans need advocates to help them find the right program, trek through the maze of applications and appeal their decision if needed.

Lack of clarity was precisely Bozeman’s problem. 

“I didn’t really know where to go,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was filling out [the forms] correctly.” She had not been applying for the right program. Advocates helped her to instead apply to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program that supports business owners. 

Meanwhile, a high number of clients reaching out to aid organizations consists of non-English speakers. The language barrier adds yet another hurdle to the application process. 

“The unemployment compensation system was not set up as well as it should have been to help those folks,” said Hall. Legal aid has been assisting this expanding group of clients, whether through language access assistance or help with appeals.

LAWO and ABLE have also started using online platforms to connect with clients. Advocates hold Facebook live sessions where they present information and answer questions. They hold virtual one-on-one meetings with individual clients and weekly meetings with groups of clients who need help with specific types of issues.

One of these issues is housing. As the public health risk demands isolation and quarantining, many low-income Ohioans have no choice but to stay in their homes, even if their housing situation is unstable.

“If people are evicted, their risk of exposure to COVID-19 or to the spread of COVID-19 increases exponentially,” Hall explained.  

Landlords clash with tenants, both facing financial pressures. And while many local courts have cancelled their eviction hearings, some are still allowing landlords to start the eviction process. Hall says these eviction filings can pressure tenants into leaving their homes prematurely. The filings tend to make landlords feel entitled to use “self-help eviction measures” to force out tenants who are having difficulty paying rent. These illegal measures include threatening to cut off the utilities and changing the locks on the doors. 

In the past few years, LAWO and ABLE have been pushing to change Ohio’s housing policies, arguing that the policies are too harsh on low income Ohioans. For example, the firms have been advocating for policies that allow tenants to avoid eviction if they are able to pay late. In many counties, tenants can be evicted even if they are a day or two behind on their payments. 

The legal services organizations believe that now is just the right time to demand reform.

“As awful as COVID-19 has been,” Hall said, “It is really forcing us as a community to address fundamental rights, human rights, civil rights and public health issues in a way that we haven’t addressed previously.” The consequences of the pandemic shed light on the need for policies that better protect Ohioans in times of crisis.

Legal aid’s domestic violence cases have also increased. Hall explains this is a result of the need to stay at home, coupled with financial uncertainty and the stresses of the pandemic. 

“Our partner firm, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, has really been taking a lead in representing survivors of domestic violence during COVID-19,” she said. Because domestic violence cases are time-sensitive emergency cases, advocates have been accompanying their clients to court hearings in-person while maintaining social distancing inside. 

As legal aid takes on more cases, there is a need for more resources. According to Hall, her organization only had the resources to assist 60 percent of the people who sought legal assistance before the pandemic. 

“The overall need has been very, very high. And our funding has been affected by the economic crisis,” Hall said.

The legal aid organizations continue to rely on grants and donations to support western Ohioans in these difficult times. 

And Ohio is not alone in this struggle. Legal aid organizations across the nation are expending already-strained resources to meet the needs of clients. The American Bar Association has expanded its Free Legal Answers Program to meet an influx of pandemic-related questions. Chicago Legal Aid has added to its army of volunteers and attorneys working pro bono, but still faces concerns of insufficient resources. 

Here emerges the paradox of legal aid in a pandemic. As Hall explained, now is the right time for reform—a time highlighting the harsh inequities of public policy and the widening tears in the American safety net—but it is also a time of great resource strain on the organizations spearheading these reforms. For now, it seems the bridge between these two realities is sheer persistence. 

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