As the economic downturn wears on, more and more people are finding they lack the money to access basic legal assistance in connection with issues ranging from foreclosure to domestic violence.
Meanwhile, Pisgah Legal Services has seen its caseload increase massively, even as its funding has dried up. Since last year, the nonprofit law firm’s budget has shrunk by $145,000; in the first half of 2011, caseloads increased by more than 10 percent, Development and Communications Manager Katie Russell Miller reports.
In response to these twin challenges, the group is planning a somewhat unusual Sept. 22 event at Pack’s Tavern (see box, “Work and Justice”). Besides raising money for the organization, Priced Out! invites community members to “explore the challenges we face as average citizens are priced out of participation in our economy and our justice system,” Miller explains.
Founded in 1978, the nonprofit provides free legal aid to low-income people in the community. “For some years, Pisgah Legal has wanted to put together an event like this,” she reveals. “We see part of our mission as educating the community about the issues that we're dealing with and motivating people to do something to change them.”
Priced Out! will feature Gene Nichol, a law professor who’s also the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill. “For about one-third of Americans — in a very broad swath of legal disputes dealing with matters close to the core of human existence — no meaningful access to the justice system is afforded,” Nichol wrote in a recent Harvard Law & Policy Review article titled “Wages, Work, Privilege and Legal Education.” Those attending the event will also have a chance to ask questions and take part in a group discussion.
Pisgah Legal chose Nichol as the speaker for “his interesting mix of expertise in poverty and issues related to the economy, combined with his strong legal background,” notes Miller. “We consider ourselves an anti-poverty agency, but we do that through the background of legal issues, so he's a good fit.” Nichol, she continues, has “looked at the data; he's dealt with issues as an outspoken advocate. We're interested to see what he has to say.”
A rock and a hard place
What drove Pisgah Legal to hold Priced Out! in place of a more normal fundraiser, says Miller, is not just the worsening situation that the group’s attorneys grapple with daily, but a widespread failure to comprehend the scope and depth of the crisis.
“The government and much of the public are forgetting there's people in our community that are really struggling; they have no idea of the impact of their decisions on vulnerable families,” she asserts.
“There's a growing population of people that need our services, because poverty is growing,” notes Miller. “More people are facing crises related to their housing and their income. Domestic violence is getting worse, and women have fewer options to escape. All of those are issues that legal aid is necessary to deal with.”
And those same economic woes also limit the resources available to agencies like Pisgah Legal to deal with the fallout.
“We've received cuts in federal, state, county and United Way funding. Several foundations have had to pull back; donors are tightening their purse strings. It's really a Catch-22,” says Miller.
As if that weren't enough, the severity and complexity of the cases the group handles are also increasing.
“We're seeing a flood of calls,” she reveals. “We've seen poverty, but what we're seeing now is unreal, unlike anything we've seen. The calls are more urgent: There's a more complex web of issues they're dealing with, because there are fewer options for the people involved.
“Before, we'd talk to someone who'd been unemployed for three months. Now we're seeing people unemployed for two years who aren't likely to get a job soon, have drained every bit of savings they have, and have already tapped into every family and friend that would help. Things are bad, and they're getting worse.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.