As the winter wears on, plenty of Chicagoans take for granted the refuge of their warm, comfortable homes as they duck inside and out of the weather. But for many of LAF’s clients, that security is in jeopardy, owing to the simple fact that they sometimes lack the resources to pay their utility bills. This becomes especially dangerous during the winter months when heating costs spike, making a tight financial situation even tighter; and when temperatures drop below zero, threatening health and safety.
Depending on their income level, clients may be eligible for grants from LIHEAP (CEDA) or from their utility provider to offset the cost of monthly bills. Those whose service has been shut off may qualify for assistance getting their heat or power reconnected, or to pay off overdue service fees over time.
Unfortunately, these programs are subject to slow administrative processes and complex rules and regulations that can lead to shutoffs while benefits are being processed, or prevent low-income individuals from seeking benefits altogether. To better serve our clients, Barbara Richardson of LAF’s Consumer Practice Group recently held a training session for her fellow staff members to discuss the various utility assistance programs available to LAF’s clients and the strategies they might employ to avoid having service disconnected.
Barbara speaks from experience about how her clients often feel coerced into agreeing to terms for paying off past-due bills. “Of course they will agree to something they can’t afford; they need their utilities back on,” she says. Sometimes clients are forced to choose between heating their homes during the winter or cooling them when the weather warms up. “A lot of our clients are accustomed to living without utilities for months in the summer,” Barbara adds. “It’s a cycle.”
LAF attorneys, paralegals, and intake specialists discussed how other common legal issues facing families living in poverty might complicate the utility issue. How do state budget issues affect clients’ options for seeking help? What if the client has a disability? What he or she needs power in their home to operate medical equipment? What if the meters measuring their gas or electricity consumption have been tampered with?
Answering these questions for our attorneys, so they can answer them for clients, is an integral part of LAF’s mission. The more we learn about the diverse and interconnected problems people living in poverty face, the better equipped we are to advance equal justice and get our clients’ lives back on track.
If Gracie Gramelspacher had a superpower, she says she’d want to fly. But it’s not so she could get away from things – it’s to be able to see everything. “It’s about the view.”
Gracie is a paralegal in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, where she has a unique view of LAF’s work with immigrants, victims of domestic violence, and non-English-speaking clients. Her work allows her to look at clients’ cases from a bird’s eye view and help survivors of violence and abuse find immigration solutions, including U-Visas and protections under the Violence Against Women Act. She does client intake, gathers records, and presents cases to attorneys. She also works directly with clients to help them gather documents and fill out very complicated U.S. Citizenship and Immigration forms – which are all in English, even though most of her clients are primarily Spanish speakers.
On those clients, she says: “I so admire the strength it takes, to survive and then report the domestic violence and assaults my clients see. I’m learning about the cycle of domestic violence and what it means for the individuals living in that reality. I want people to share that admiration, to see our clients as strong and resilient. I often think of what I do as clients sharing their stories with me. There’s a mutual respect and gratitude in what I do, and it means a lot.”
With a view like that, no wonder Gracie is a superhero everyone wants on their side!
Your support enables LAF to continue connecting survivors of abuse with heroes like Gracie. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at www.lafchicago.org.
Food insecurity—the condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food—is a patent symptom of poverty, so it’s no surprise that communities with the highest rates of food insecurity in Chicago largely overlap with the communities where LAF clients live and work. But with food insecurity linked to problems we see so many of our clients struggling with—like obesity, diabetes, and poor performance in school—it’s imperative we look at what justice and equity look like in the broader context of our food system.
“Our food system—all of the practices, processes, policies, and people involved in getting our food from the farm to the table and beyond—is shaped by the same structures of power and oppression that beset the rest of society,” says attorney Daniel Edelstein. He joined LAF in September on a one-year fellowship funded by his alma mater, Boston College Law School. In November, Daniel gave a presentation to LAF attorneys and staff that introduced major issues in the food system, and discussed how LAF’s work is involved while suggesting a “systems-oriented” perspective.
Much like other social systems (e.g., the criminal justice system, the public school system), the food system’s history, size, and complexity present a number of barriers to meaningful change. With 15 federal agencies involved in regulating the food system, Daniel explains, it’s hard to shake the silo mentality that keeps the many different stakeholders from addressing the system as a broader network of issues that connect and influence each other.
“Our industrial agriculture system was built on the back of slavery. Today, farmworkers still don’t have the same employment protections as everyone else, so we continue to live in a system where labor that brings our food to the table is forced and exploited,” Daniel says. “All of this has disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, which traces back to the same inequalities and structures of oppression that we see in all of our work and throughout society on a daily basis.”
Over the last decade we’ve seen renewed discussion about where our food comes from, but most of what we know about our food is based on what’s been marketed to us. Many popular claims like “natural” or “boosts immunity” aren’t strictly regulated, causing confusion in grocery store aisles. “With all these claims and fancy packaging while we’re moving quickly through a grocery store, it makes it hard to say we have a real, thoughtful choice about what we’re buying,” Daniel says.
Despite the challenges facing those who seek justice in the food system, Daniel looks forward to thinking creatively about strategies and solutions. Chicago and Illinois are active and vibrant spaces for food justice: urban farms, wasted food reduction, food banks, worker centers, progressive institutional purchasing policies, are just some of the areas in which resources and communities are organizing. But there is more to do to ensure that these strategies are inclusive, solutions are comprehensive, and importantly for us at LAF to mobilize legal services. In November, Daniel and Miguel launched an alliance of community groups, advocates, and individuals that make up food system. “As attorneys, we have a lot we can bring to the table. My hope is that over this next year, we’re able to think together and with our communities to advance the food justice movement.”
For more information or to get involved with the fight for food justice, contact Daniel at DEdelstein @ lafchicago . org.
Naeem Nulwala explains his job in very matter-of-fact terms, defining the boundaries of his work. “My job is to take in facts, come up with realistic outcomes, and do what I need to do to reach them.” But the cases Naeem handles as an attorney in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group are rarely as simple as his summary makes them sound.
Much of his time is spent working with survivors of domestic violence, but “it isn’t just family law issues,” Naeem explains. Many clients have extensive legal problems beyond physical violence which stem from their abuse, including getting protection from abusers, finding housing, getting access to food, ensuring support for children, dealing with aggressive creditors, and more. Especially for survivors of abuse who live in poverty, the obstacles to reclaiming a sense of normalcy can seem endless – the key to handling domestic violence cases is having a good network of resources for all the client’s needs. “Referring clients to good resources lets me focus on how I can best help them – as an attorney.”
LAF is an integral part of survivors’ support networks because “there are minimal other resources out there for people who can’t afford an attorney. And many of the people we represent are already at a disadvantage.” Naeem and others at LAF help survivors obtain protection from their abusers and unravel all the related legal issues. “Legal aid can’t erase the realities of what happened,” Naeem says, “but it helps things start to get a little better.”
Your support enables LAF to continue making things better for survivors. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at http://www.lafchicago.org.