At Rosie’s Place, a legal program helps vulnerable women navigate immigration, debt and everything in between

For over 40 years in Boston’s South End neighborhood, Rosie’s Place has opened its doors to homeless and impoverished women seeking assistance and safety. The bustling lobby rarely — if ever — slows down. A little past the front desk, the office of the legal assistance program has become increasingly in-demand and growing to meet the need of guests worried about their legal situations or any cumbersome issue, law-related or not.   

“Folks come in sometimes with really compelling-looking junk mail that looks like someone bought a car in their name, but it’s an ad for auto insurance that’s using their name, just very deceptive advertising,” said Jennifer Howard, the legal program manager at Rosie’s Place. “I remember one women who was sick about it, feeling like someone stole her identity and bought this car, and it was literally junk mail.” Howard sat down with her, read the letter together and addressed her concerns.

“The bar is really low to come in and talk, they don’t have to jump through hoops they just have to show up,” she said.  

This expanding needs for legal services reflect broader national trends of declining public trust in government and federal resources. In Massachusetts, lack of affordable housing and what advocates call an “eviction crisis” can drive women to a places like Rosie’s Place, as well as a wealth of other personal factors. And, because of a dearth of legal services in the community there is a general need for help, according to Mckenzie Bell, a non-lawyer legal advocate who joined the program last August.

“When you look around at other legal services, you have great services, like Greater Boston Legal Services, but they are a legal office. So to our understanding [Rosie’s Place] is pretty much the only accessible legal services inside of another nonprofit agency, in our case a women’s shelter,” Bell said.

Jennifer Howard, an attorney who has been working on women’s welfare issues for over 20 years, joined Rosie’s Place as the legal manager in May of this year. She serves on the program alongside Bell. Rosie’s Place historically partnered with legal offices in Boston to bring volunteers to meet with guests needing legal advice, but within the last couple of years the program built an in-house operation, aided by volunteer lawyers and legal advocates.

According to the two women, housing, immigration, debt and CORI sealing are the primary areas that warrant specific clinics. At Rosie’s Place a clinic is a certain number of hours per day that are dedicated to answering questions about a particular topic. For example, between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., a housing a attorney from GBLS, one of Rosie’s Places legal partners, meets with about eight individual guests on a first-come, first-serve basis. Volunteers from law firm Ropes & Gray come in every week for the debt clinic to help women develop payment strategies and get a handle on money they owe. Howard and Bell also offer general advice and referral clinics, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, which is open to anyone who walks in with a problem or question.

A very small percentage of women they see are overnight guests at Rosie’s Place, since they offer 20 beds available for three weeks at a time. They feel having a consistent schedule, handing out flyers and a directory of services help visitors find the right clinics to meet their needs.

According to Michele Chausse, Rosie’s Place communications director, the legal program doubled the Irish Immigration Center’s hours to better assist women with immigration issues.

“A lot of people are motivated to apply for citizenship right now to be registered to vote, and trying to petition to get family members from other countries to join them here. We see people who want to try to apply for asylum or other protective statuses,” Bell said.

It is not required to disclose one’s legal status to access any of the programs at Rosie’s Place, including the legal program. The group noted a wealth of misinformation and uncertainty among the community causing fear and worry, which is in part thanks to the swirl of executive orders and subtle changes by the Trump administration.

“I think the talk about enforcement and deportation is so rampant everywhere that it leaves people in a real bind, because it’s not totally clear where you can reach out for help. Like, is that going to put you in further danger or not?,” Howard explained. “Having a place where you can get information out to people is a useful endeavor for whatever it’s worth. Sometimes it’s hard to talk people out of the worst case scenario if that’s what they’re really afraid of.”

Along with assisting with immigration concerns, weekly CORI clinics help people obtain their records to see if anything can be sealed. There are different timelines for CORI records for misdemeanors and for felonies, and some timelines are becoming shorter as of mid-October thanks to a statewide criminal justice reform bill proposed earlier this year.

Even as the legal program grows, there are still not enough resources to meet the legal demands of the community. Howard would like to see their general advice and referral clinics staffed with additional volunteers so they can sit down with more people during the day.

“The program here is a place to face your fears. If there’s anything that’s eating at you that you’re not sure if it’s a legal problem, maybe it is maybe it’s not, this is a very comfortable safe space to explore that,” Howard said. “Our goal isn’t to try and force people into doing anything they’re not ready to do, it’s really our goal is to figure out what is actually happening and to see if it’s a legal problem or not.”

Jessica Colarossi graduated from Emerson College with a degree in journalism and publishing in 2016. She is passionate about social justice, environmental issues, gender equality and she is originally from Long Island, N.Y. Twiiter: @heyitsjessc.

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