According to the CHALENG for Veterans Progress Report, legal assistance is one of the greatest unmet needs among veterans. In fact, legal issues make up 5 of the 10 greatest unmet needs CHALENG identifies, including legal assistance for eviction/foreclosure prevention, help restoring driver’s licenses, child support, and outstanding warrants and fines. Thanks to LAF’s Veterans Legal Clinic, held the third Thursday of each month at the Community Resource and Referral Center near Douglas Park, more Chicago veterans have access to the legal help they need.
Supervisory Attorney Kathyrn Socha, Veterans Legal Corps Fellow Ellen Rheaume, and Hilary Gordon, AmeriCorps VISTA tasked with coordinating the clinic, are on the frontlines each month, alongside two attorneys from LAF’s Veterans Task Force that serve the clinic on a rotating basis. With only a few cubicles at their disposal, space is limited. And since about half of the clients they see make appointments ahead of time, work at the Veterans Clinic is what some might call controlled chaos.
Each client meets with an attorney for one hour, enabling the attorneys to not only provide brief services and referrals, but also screen for extended representation. The clinic, along with LAF’s Veteran Hotline which enables veterans and their family member to bypass LAF’s regular intake process and speak with an expert in veterans’ issues, are part of LAF’s greater outreach efforts to reduce homelessness and unemployment among veterans in our community.
Hilary shares the story of one former client—a veteran and public housing resident who came to the clinic seeking a building transfer. “He suffered from an untreated psychotic disorder and believed he was being watched in his apartment,” she explains. “We were able to work with his doctor to get a disability accommodation so he could move to a quieter building where he now feels safer.”
The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
The Atlantic recently published a poignant, but problematic article from author Alex Tizon that details how his family enslaved a Filipino woman, forcing her into domestic servitude, for decades. Tinzon struggles to understand how and why his parents mistreated this woman, known to him as Lola, for years. It is a shocking confession of modern-day slavery in the United States. For many readers, this article exposed them to the insidious nature of human trafficking. Lola is a figure that is ever-present and always working; outsiders find it odd that she is always cooking and cleaning, yet they never are able to name what is happening to her. Human trafficking is evasive like that–it is a crime that occurs in almost all industries, but we find it hard to identify it because it is easier to believe that slavery no longer occurs in the United States. But human trafficking isn’t just a global problem, it’s a local one.
At LAF we combat both sex and labor trafficking through our Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP). TSAP provides legal representation to human trafficking survivors from all over the world, including U.S. citizens, in a variety of legal areas. While our client demographics are diverse, many clients come from similar circumstances that left them susceptible to traffickers. Human trafficking survivors come from vulnerable populations: runaways, homeless youth, domestic violence victims, impoverished migrants, and other marginalized communities that make them not only easy targets for traffickers, but easier still for the general population to dismiss as “real” victims. This is why one of TSAP’s biggest and recurrent responsibilities is to convince law enforcement officials that our clients are in fact survivors of human trafficking eligible for various forms of legal remedies.
Failing to recognize survivors of human trafficking is an overarching problem. While victims come from all walks of life, people often have a set idea of what a real victim looks like. They may imagine a young White woman forced into sex work. While White women are trafficked, they are not the only ones targeted by traffickers. Women of color are also preyed upon and coerced into prostitution, yet they are more likely to be ignored and dismissed by those in charge with protecting survivors. This problem is argued in great detail by law professor Cheryl Nelson Butler in her article, The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking. Professor Butler argues that a major reason why the justice system fails to see women of color as victims is due to long-held stereotypes that perpetuate myths about their sexuality. This results in women of color being punished more harshly for prostitution rather than being offered assistance as human trafficking survivors. At LAF, we see the barriers placed before our client/survivors when they fail to meet the sex trafficking survivor prototype. We fight right alongside them to educate law enforcement and obtain the legal relief available to our clients.
Beyond sex trafficking, deep-seeded racial stereotypes facilitate labor trafficking. Certain social groups are stereotyped with being hard workers or submissive, which allows traffickers to abuse people under the guise of hard work. The power of racial stereotypes became evident in a recent trafficking case involving Chinese buffet restaurant workers. We represented some of the trafficking survivors who were primarily from Latin America. Various temp agencies placed our clients in restaurants after advertising that they had “honest” Mexicans available for work. The restaurant owners then worked our clients to exhaustion through physical and emotional abuse.
So while racial stereotypes may seem disconnected from human trafficking, the truth is that traffickers use all tools at their disposal to further their crime. Relying on the public’s implicit bias that certain groups don’t mind being “worked hard” or that other groups are hypersexualized works to the traffickers’ advantage. It makes the public question and dismiss whether a survivor is a “true” victim because they fail to meet a stereotypical standard. With over 20 million people trafficked globally, we know that people are trafficked from all walks of life. Yet, when we envision only one type of victim we do a disservice to all other survivors of human trafficking. Further, we embolden the trafficker who opts to victimize certain types of people believing that no one will care about their wellbeing.
LAF cares, and through TSAP we ensure that traffickers are held accountable; law enforcement protects all people; and our communities gain awareness to fight this ever-present problem.
It’s 4 PM, and the students at Jose De Diego Community Academy have gone home for the day. LAF staff and pro bono volunteers gather in a small cluster of rooms in the school’s basement, in what used to be the nurses office. On the third Wednesday of each month, this tight space serves as headquarters for the Katten De Diego Legal Clinic, a partnership between Katten Muchin Rosenman and LAF that provides free legal services to low-income residents of surrounding west Wicker Park (or east Humboldt Park, depending on who you ask).
But tonight is particularly special, as the clinic will be closing its doors for the summer months and reopening in September. The hearty team of volunteers from Katten include two new faces, but most are the usual suspects—like Alyse Sagalchik, an Associate at Katten and a winner of LAF’s 2017 volunteer of the year award. “It’s a unique opportunity to do what I see as a moral obligation as lawyers—to dedicate our time and resources to help people who otherwise wouldn’t have legal representation,” she says. “It’s doing good for other people, but I also feel good doing it.”
The thermostat reads 83° and with only eight chairs, the waiting room is full before the clinic officially opens at 4:30. Keith Forrest, Litigation Paralegal Supervisor at Katten and one of the volunteers who helped open the clinic in April 2013, assigns volunteers to each of the four small offices (formerly examination rooms) where they meet one-on-one with clients. “The volume of clients we’re seeing has gone up. But we’ve learned to be more efficient, and gotten better at knowing what questions to ask,” says Jonathan Baum, Katten’s Director of Pro Bono Services and long-time volunteer at the clinic. “It’s my home away from home—I love this place.”
In another small room just off the waiting room area, volunteers process intake forms and consult with each other on cases. “It’s neat to see attorneys from the private sector come out to do this kind of work—not because they have to, but because they want to,” says Dana Harbaugh, AmeriCorps VISTA Attorney in charge of coordinating LAF’s legal clinics. Jared Heck, a Partner at Katten who specializes in healthcare litigation and a longtime member of LAF’s Young Professionals Board, is a prime example. “You can actually see and feel the difference that you’re making,” he says.
By 7 PM, the flurry of activity has slowed and the group prepares to close up shop for the season. The steadfast team of volunteers saw 16 clients in total. Katten will be taking on a number of their cases pro bono, even as the clinic is dark over the summer. With Katten’s pro bono volunteers and financial support, LAF will continue to provide the families of the Jose De Diego Academy and their neighbors with legal solutions to their civil problems.
Imagine you’re unemployed and get your driver’s license suspended due to parking tickets you can’t afford to pay—will you be able to find another job without a valid license? What if your credit score tanked from a fraudulent car loan? How about if you were arrested back in high school, but don’t know how to get it expunged—will that prevent you from finding employment? For job seekers living in poverty, finding work is about more than just availability of jobs. “There are a number of legal issues that undermine people’s ability to support themselves and lead stable, productive lives,” says Miguel Keberlein, Director of LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. “It’s hard to tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if they don’t even have any boots.”
In partnership with National Able Network, LAF‘s Ready to Work (R2W) program is a newly funded initiative by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois that helps remove legal barriers that keep people from getting and keeping a job, with the goal of helping them get back to work. LAF’s R2W team consists of attorneys, paralegals, and a social worker who connects clients with resources outside of LAF that may help them find further stability. “We’re trying to provide a holistic approach in how we serve our clients,” said Lilian Lepe, LAF’s lead paralegal for R2W.
LAF staff are stationed at the Chicago Workforce Center in Pilsen—home to National Able, Easter Seals and a number of other workforce development agencies—on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To help caseworkers identify legal issues their clients may be facing, LAF developed a comprehensive screening tool and provided a number of trainings about the legal issues that lead to employment instability. As an established community workforce center that already offers a wide range of employment services, it’s the perfect home for R2W. “Creating job stability is a mosaic,” says Jonathan DeLozano, LAF’s lead attorney for R2W. “Legal aid is just one tile in that mosaic.”
Moving forward, LAF hopes to expand R2W by partnering with other workforce development agencies throughout Chicago. “By expanding the breadth of our work so we can reach more populations in more areas of the city, we hope to be able to reach as many people as we can,” Jonathan says.