Lawyers Clearinghouse receives grant to expand pro-bono legal aid

Photo: Lawyers Clearinghouse

Lawyers Clearinghouse, an organization that connects homeless individuals and nonprofits with pro bono legal services, received a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation that will allow it to expand its services and staff.

Lawyers Clearinghouse has a small staff—just four employees—but a wide reach. In the fiscal year 2014, the organization provided almost $6 million in legal services with a $254,000 budget. Hundreds of lawyers volunteer their time to Lawyers Clearinghouse, which offers free legal clinics at four local homeless shelters through its Massachusetts Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

According to Maribeth Perry, executive director of Lawyers Clearinghouse, only one-third of people who are eligible for free civil legal services in Massachusetts actually receive help due to budget cuts and a lack of resources.

Lawyers Clearinghouse helps bridge that gap with volunteer lawyers from four in-house legal departments and 10 law firms. The three types of cases that it sees most often are those involving housing, disability and criminal records. Housing includes issues such as evictions and problems with subsidized housing, while disability cases are typically problems with state benefits being denied. Criminal records cases usually involve a person trying to have their criminal records sealed.

The organization does not provide aid for domestic relations cases—divorces, child support cases or custody issues—due to a lack of expertise. Lawyers Clearinghouse also doesn’t handle any criminal cases or contingency cases, which include problems such as medical malpractice.

The grant comes as part of the Cummings Foundation’s “$100K for 100” program, which supports nonprofits in Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk counties. Lawyers Clearinghouse was one of the 100 selected from 479 applicants.

Executive Director of the Cummings Foundation Joel Swets explained that the “$100K for 100” program searched for nonprofits that were in line with the foundation’s overarching goals: human services, healthcare, education and social justice.

“We do fund healthcare in homeless shelters and we do fund food pantries, but that’s the kind of thing that you have to keep funding if you don’t address the underlying cause, and that is that people don’t have good jobs and good homes,” Swets said. “Housing is a foundational thing, so what Lawyers Clearinghouse does by providing legal clinics is to get those people a foundation.”

The grant will be dedicated to Lawyers Clearinghouse’s Massachusetts Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Perry explains that the funding will allow Lawyers Clearinghouse to hire a new, part-time staff person to manage the program and to expand its reach to include a family shelter, the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership—a nonprofit that helps to connect people with affordable housing—and potentially families living in shelters and motels.

The organization has not yet determined what fields it will expand into, but it is considering starting a program in Waltham to better address the needs of homeless families.

“A lot of the families are sheltered outside Boston, in motels, and there are a lot of issues that make it hard for them to come to where we are for services now, not the least of which is transportation, childcare, things of that nature,” Perry said. “So we’d like to bring the services to them.”

Perry anticipates that families will have similar legal needs as the individuals that Lawyers Clearinghouse is currently serving.

Perry, who has been running the clinic program for 20 years, is excited to be able to broaden its reach with the help of the Cummings grant.

“They’re a tremendously effective organization,” Swets said. “They do a lot with not much.”

Reena Karasin is a freelance reporter for Spare Change News.

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