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44th Street Notes

Help Us Help Others

Dec 1999

The Metro Section of the New York Times recently ran a feature article under the sobering headline: "Poverty Rate Persists in City Despite Boom." The article reported that despite the strength of the economy in recent years, the number of New York City residents living below the poverty line today-1.8 million, or one-quarter of the entire population-is as great as, if not greater than, the number during the last recession at the start of this decade. Indeed, the poverty rate here is twice the national average and higher than that in all but one of the metropolitan regions in the country. At the same time, the governmental resources that are being made available to meet the legal needs of the poor in such areas as housing and public benefits are static or declining.

Several conclusions can be drawn from these two phenomena, but one is of singular significance to this Association and its members: the need for lawyers to represent the poor and the need for funds to support both volunteer and staffed legal services programs have never been greater. As we enter a holiday season that will bring little joy to more than a million of our neighbors, it is an appropriate time to focus on that need and to review the Association's legal services programs and what we are doing to increase their reach and effectiveness.

How We Help

In 1987, the Association created the Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program (COLP), named after a past President of the Association and The Legal Aid Society and former Dean of New York University Law School, to train volunteers and provide education, advice and representation in what have grown into more than a dozen project areas, including:

an Elderlaw Project that assists the elderly in preparing wills and securing benefits; representing abused immigrant women and children seeking permanent resident status, and conducting community legal immigration clinics; assisting refugees seeking political asylum; training volunteers to help homeless individuals and families to obtain benefits and to serve as guardians ad litem and mediators in Housing Court; providing volunteer mediators in child custody and visitation proceedings in Family Court; placing volunteer attorneys, through the Public Service Network, in nonprofit public service organizations throughout the City; assisting the unrepresented, through the Center for Self-Help, Information, Education and Legal Defense (SHIELD) and the Office for the Self-Represented in Supreme Court, New York County, by providing basic information, guidance and legal forms, and conducting clinics for individuals seeking uncontested divorces; and advising individuals with cancer regarding employment rights and disputed insurance claims. Through these and other programs, the Association last year provided more than 14,000 hours of advice and representation by more than 300 volunteer attorneys and law students to several thousand poor and needy individuals throughout the City. The SHIELD hotline alone answered nearly 1,000 calls a month. Impressive as these statistics are, the overwhelming need compels us to do more, and the Association is responding in several ways.

This past summer, COLP began a Women and Children's Self-Sufficiency Project to provide information on self-sufficiency issues such as day care rights. More than 50 experienced matrimonial practitioners have volunteered to staff a bi-weekly clinic that offers assistance with contested divorce proceedings. The City Bar Fund received a grant to enhance the Elderlaw Project by hiring a benefits specialist. Finally, in a city where there are many legal services programs that are not adequately coordinated, the City Bar Fund is working with other organizations and individuals to develop an Internet-based legal services referral system, LAW HELP, that will utilize a comprehensive database for quick, accurate and efficient referrals by intake providers to relevant programs offered by legal services programs throughout the City

Maximizing Available Legal Services

The imbalance of overwhelming needs and limited resources makes it imperative that we maximize available legal services resources through effective coordination. In collaboration with others, we will convene in January 2000 the first citywide legal services conference, bringing together project managers, staff attorneys, intake staff and volunteers in the legal services and law school communities. And in recognition of the fact that legal services needs outstrip resources not just in this city and country but throughout the world, the City Bar Fund will co-sponsor with Columbia, Fordham and New York University Law Schools an International Access to Justice Conference next April with speakers, panelists and other participants from many countries.

I urge every member of the Association to support these efforts by including the City Bar Fund in the list of charitable causes to which you contribute during the holiday season. Please be generous. I promise you that every dollar of your contribution will be well spent to alleviate the legal needs of the poorest of our neighbors.

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