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Rent, unemployment, domestic violence, wills: people need legal help during COVID-19

COVID-19 has been a devastating catastrophe for the many Americans who were already living on the edge of poverty and instability. Families who were just getting by are now facing unemployment, potential loss of housing, food insecurity, increased risk of domestic violence, and – for some – the urgent need for a will or healthcare proxy to make medical decisions. Free civil legal services are essential to these people. Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) is a nonprofit law firm that helps people who are unable to afford an attorney when their basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, safety, and income, are at stake. During the COVID-19 pandemic, LSHV has been a lifeline to those who have been affected by the crisis and have nowhere else to turn.

Not only will LSHV continue to help the people who already qualified for our services, but many more people will become eligible as the COVID-19 crisis develops. The courts in New York remain open for emergency cases and LSHV – an essential service provider as per the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) – is on the frontlines in advocating for clients in these matters:

Housing – although there is a moratorium on evictions, some landlords are proceeding with illegal lockouts and evictions. Renters need to know what the 90-day rent moratorium means and homeowners need advice on mortgage forbearance and foreclosure.

Domestic violence – stay-at-home orders are dangerous for domestic violence victims who find it even more difficult to safely communicate with service providers like LSHV. When they are able to communicate with us, victims often anguish over which is safer for them and their children – staying in an abusive household, or fleeing to a shelter or other location, knowing that they face a double-threat of possible Coronavirus exposure and increased risk of serious injury and murder by their abuser because the most dangerous time for a victim is when she leaves. For those victims who have left and have  visitation orders in place, some victims have information that their children are at risk of COVID-19 exposure during visitation and they need our advocacy. If survivors don’t comply with custody and visitation agreements, the abuser could use this against the victim later.

Advanced planning – those who are at high risk or become sick with COVID-19 may need assistance to create a basic will, health care proxy, and other advance directives, such as a stand-by guardianship to provide for the care of their dependents.

Employment – millions of Americans have lost their jobs and are filing for unemployment benefits. Because of the high volume of applications, clients report that they are unable to get through to the Department of Labor to file. Even if able to file, there will be incorrect denials. Other employees face unlawful termination and many don’t know their expanded rights to paid leave under federal and state law.

Income maintenance and consumer law – if you are having problems with applying for or are in danger of losing public benefits, whether through the Department of Social Services or the Social Security Administration, we may be able to help. We are assisting clients with applications to the courts to vacate judgments and stay wage garnishments, levies, and bank account restraints.

Ms. A was locked out of her apartment over the weekend by her landlord. She had a pending landlord-tenant case and had agreed to vacate the apartment by March 31, but she was unable to schedule movers because of COVID-19. She went to work over the weekend and came home to find her locks changed with her cats inside. Ms. A also has four children and two grandchildren living with her. On Monday, Ms. A’s landlord agreed to provide access to remove her belongings but refused to provide a key to the apartment. On Wednesday morning, an LSHV attorney filed papers to have her restored to the apartment, and the court agreed. On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. A got back into her apartment and once again has a key. She is able to remain in her home for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. Without an attorney to advocate for her, she and her family would have been homeless in the middle of a pandemic.

Here’s what you need to know if you are a potential client or a community partner:

  • Don’t wait to come to us! Get advice now so you can be prepared.
  • Our services are free and some of our grants allow us to serve middle-income households – don’t assume that you’re not eligible if you own a home or have a job.
  • LSHV provides legal advice and representation in civil (non-criminal) matters to residents of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Sullivan, and Rockland counties.
  • All LSHV staff are currently working remotely. While we are not available for in-person meetings, clients can reach us by phone 877-574-8529 or through our website lshv.org.