The coronavirus pandemic has brought additional strain to New Hampshire residents living below the poverty line, and New Hampshire Legal Assistance has seen a surge in requests for services. The nonprofit is using grant funds and pro-bono partnerships to meet the need for legal aid.
“Supporting access to legal services is a nonpartisan effort,” Ovide Lamontagne, chair of NHLA said. “We have Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, vegetarians, all supporting the effort. It’s during these trying times where we can come together. Access to justice are all issues we are unified by.”
Already this year, NHLA, which provides legal assistance to state residents living at or below the poverty line, has seen a tenfold increase in the number of people requesting legal aid with unemployment applications, said Sarah Mattson Dustin, executive director. Clients can receive help through the process and assistance if their case needs to go to a hearing. In the last seven weeks, NHLA has seen more unemployment applications than in all of 2019, and Mattson Dustin predicts requests for unemployment assistance could double again by the fall.
Even if the unemployment rate drops, Mattson Dustin expects the pandemic and its financial impact will continue to affect New Hampshire residents who live below the poverty line (defined as $26,200 annually for a family of four), the target demographic for NHLA.
“That’s not going away, even when the economy recovers,” she said. “It will have a lasting effect on our clients.”
Demand for other services
NHLA recently received $75,000 from New Hampshire Charitable Foundations Community Crisis fund to help with the increased need for services brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The grant can be used throughout the year as different needs arise. Currently, the need is for unemployment-related issues, but down the line, it may be used for other services, including supporting housing access, said Mattson Dustin. NHLA is also looking toward their pro-bono partners at law firms across the state to help meet client needs throughout the fall.
Clients are also turning to NHLA to provide services for victims of domestic violence, support for the homeless, and guidance on youth law. All of those areas have experienced increased demand.
NHLA is anticipating an increase in victim survivor assistance, helping victims of domestic violence with relocating or court representation for divorce or custody cases.
Many victims use small “windows” in their day – like grocery shopping time or school drop-off – to access these benefits without being detected by their abuser, said Erin Jasina, domestic violence program director at NHLA. With schedules upended and few excuses to leave the house, survivors have struggled to access or request benefits. NHLA receives referrals from Legal Advice and Referral Center, and those have declined with fewer victims reaching out, but Jasina anticipates seeing the numbers rise again.
“We expect the numbers to rise as the pandemic loosens,” she said. “We are turning an eye to how we can meet that need, because we know that need will be overwhelming.”
Survivors now have the chance to file claims electronically if they’ve been victim of crimes including stalking, human trafficking or sexual assault between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., Jasina said. This will limit exposure to the coronavirus and also reduce barriers like the need for childcare.
“The courts were able to launch the forms, and we are hoping that it creates additional access to people to maintain safety on those issues,” Jasina said.
Many clients of NHLA have received text messages or verbal threats from their landlords due to not being able to pay rent, likely from facing unemployment, said Steve McGilvary, a paralegal at the referral center.
Currently, according to the NHLA website, landlords are unable to evict tenants and courts should not be issuing eviction orders. However, this doesn’t mean that a tenant does not have to pay rent.
“These are clients that have lost their jobs due to the lockdown and they feel hopeless,” McGilvary said.
NHLA also helps children with Individualized Education Plans who may have a difficult transition back to school. No matter what education looks like in the fall, NHLA Youth Law Project Director Michele Wangerin expects increased requests for such services.
“One concern I have is that kids have been in a very unique situation and don’t know what to expect when they return back to school. One fix is making sure they have the resources they need,” she said.
This articles is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.