By Jim Ash
Bay Area Legal Services, a group that has been meeting the legal needs of Tampa Bay’s poor and low-income residents since 1967, is taking a novel approach to disaster planning.
Chair Michael Bedke said the group is leveraging a $307,573 grant from Legal Services Corporation to launch the No Place Like Home Project.
The idea, Bedke said, is to help people deal with the legal consequences of hurricanes, floods, or other natural disasters long before the barometer plummets, the creek rises, or the evacuation orders go out.
“Instead of waiting for a disaster, let’s get people to start thinking about these issues now,” Bedke said.
After Hurricane Katrina, volunteer attorneys were confronted with storm victims living in family homes that were handed down from generation to generation without a single title transfer. It may be a heartwarming tradition, but Bedke says it enormously complicated relief efforts.
“Somebody would come in and say, ‘OK, I need a small grant to re-roof my house.’” Bedke said. “They would say, ‘Fine, bring us a copy of the deed.’”
Working ahead of time, legal services attorneys could identify neighborhoods where the problem is known or suspected and help residents bring their documentation up to speed.
Bay Area Legal Services Deputy Director Joan Boles says the grant is being subcontracted with sister organizations to create five pilot programs across the state.
Besides Bay Area Legal Services, in the 13th Circuit, the other groups are: Legal Aid of Manasota, in the 12th Circuit, (Sarasota and Manatee counties only); Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County in the 15th Circuit; Legal Aid Service of Broward County in the 17th Circuit; and Legal Services of North Florida in the First, Second, and 14th circuits, which includes Leon County, home of Tallahassee and the Capitol.
The Florida Bar’s Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section has become a natural partner in the project, Bedke said.
“This is right in the wheelhouse of members of the RPPTL,” Bedke said.
Program organizers hope to initially recruit, train, and retain 120 attorneys across the state. Bedke says volunteer attorneys will train trainers, who in turn will recruit and train line troops.
“We’re trying to build an army of foot soldiers, lawyers training lawyers,” he said.
Not all participants have to be attorneys, Boles said. Other partners are already helping stretch the grant dollars.
One local government in Southwest Florida has offered to pay $100,000 in matching case costs, including filing fees and title searches.
Bedke says the work can be immensely satisfying.
“We’re keeping families together in their homes, and helping them receive the benefits to which they are entitled.”