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Florida legal aid agencies expecting more pandemic work

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The need for help with housing problems by low-income Floridians is apparently rapidly increasing because of the COVID-19 pandemic but the peak demands aren’t expected until next year.

Legal aid agencies are also helping Floridians who may have had trouble getting their federal stimulus checks and dealing with other continuing issues, including domestic violence cases.

“We’re definitely seeing increases [in housing cases]. I don’t think we’re at surge levels yet because with evictions the [federal Centers for Disease Control] moratorium was extended until December 31,” said Leslie Powell-Boudreaux, executive director of Legal Services of North Florida.

Exact numbers aren’t available but there are indications of the surging need for legal assistance in housing cases.

Monica Vigues-Pitan, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, said the statewide Florida Online Intake system, operated by a consortium of legal aid offices, has seen a 238% increase in housing cases from September 1 through November 18.

That figure does not include those who have called in for help.

A Census Household Pulse survey of the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Pompano Beach metro area, Vigues-Pitan said, showed 12.5% of adults were not current on their rent or mortgage and were not sure of their ability to make next month’s payment; 24.5% were in households not current on rent or mortgage and believe eviction or foreclosure was very or somewhat likely within two months; and 42.8% reported it was somewhat or very difficult to pay usual household expenses during the pandemic.

“Housing [case] numbers have gone up,” she said. “There’s a sharp increase in eviction defense.”

Powell-Boudreaux said her office is working with rental assistance providers, funded under the federal CARES Act, to get help for tenants.

“That’s the nonlegal side of it,” she said. “Because the law [surrounding the CDC moratorium] is a little bit unknown at this point, sometimes the non-legal solutions give more peace of mind to our clients than the legal ones.”

Powell-Boudreaux and Vigues-Pitan said legal aid offices across the state are coordinating as various judges issue rulings on how the CDC moratorium, which has replaced earlier federal and state moratoriums, applies to evictions.

With an extended deadline until November 21, many people are also seeking federal stimulus checks approved earlier this year but which they haven’t received, Powell-Boudreaux said.

“We are seeing more and more people who didn’t receive a check because it went to an old bank account or it went to an old address and they need to clear up those issues,” she said. “We’re finding there are a lot of people who just don’t know [about the checks] and that’s a significant amount of money that could be helping support our communities.”

One unexpected trend is “we have not seen a decrease in our domestic violence cases,” Powell-Boudreaux said. “There was some thought that we might because for victims, it’s hard for them to reach out if they’re at home with their abusers. What concerns me is we’re seeing the same if not slightly higher numbers and there still may be people unable to reach out to connect or are afraid to because of the loss of income in these really difficult times.”

There also have been unemployment-related cases as some people initially laid off went back to work and then lost their jobs again as the coronavirus resurged in the fall, she said.

As for the legal aid offices themselves, remote operations are continuing with in-office operations only for domestic violence or similar emergency cases.

“We are working from home. Some people go to the office to meet with a client to prep for a hearing or if they don’t have internet access,” Vigues-Pitan said. “They go into our very large conference room and socially distance.

“I would imagine a lot of programs have significant increased costs. We have some costs related to moving everyone to working remotely overnight,” she added.

Vigues-Pitan said the pandemic has changed the way legal aid agencies seek to help clients after a catastrophe.

“After a disaster, we’re always out in the community doing outreach. The challenge of the pandemic is we really can’t do that,” she said.

Her agency is working with social service programs to reach clients and with the constituent service operations of local elected officials

Powell-Boudreaux said her office has a few people at work for domestic violence or other emergency cases, but otherwise working from home is the rule.

Her office has had virtual gatherings, and she added, “We are just working toward taking care of each other.”

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