Monday, February 26, 2007

A Good Idea

At the retreat last weekend the keynote speaker was Robin Steinberg from the Bronx Defenders. They run a full-service, one-stop legal aid clinic complete with a web of referral services designed to address the complexity of poverty one person at a time, rather than one legal proceding at a time.

Think about it: You get arrested for drug possession, so you need a defense lawyer. You pay $200 bail so you won't get fired from your job, so you don't have money for rent this month and you get evicted. Now you need someone in the landlord/tenant department. In the meantime the state has sheltered your kids due to the drug charges (which don't have to be proven to issue a shelter order), so now you need a family lawyer. Then your 20-year-old car you can't afford to maintain breaks down and you go to the local check-cashing cornershop to get the $200 to fix it, knowing that they'll charge you like 200% interest, but also knowing that if you don't fix your car you can't get to work and you'll lose your job. Of course, by now you've miss so much work for your court hearings that you get fired anyway and you can't pay back the loan. You need an employment lawyer and a consumer lawyer to get the creditors off your back. This scenario assumes, of course, that you and your kids are healthy and never have any accidents, because naturally you don't have health insurance.

Now why, you ask, can't one lawyer just handle all that? Ok, really--would you ask a podiatrist to perform your lobotomy? Well, lawyers are just as specialized as doctors, and one department just can't handle the variety of issues a person living close to the financial edge presents.

So add to this one-stop model of legal help referrals to (or in-house) counseling services, drug rehab programs, employment skills training, and mentorship programs, and you just be able to do some good. So... wanna build one of these somewhere else?


Ryan said...

Sounds to me like you're describing an institution that already exists: local churches. Because what you're describing is something that churches should be doing anyways, and something that has a better chance of success than anyone else. I'm all in favor of adding legal services to deaconal ministries.

Becca said...

I'm all for churches doing this stuff, and you are right to point out that it's their job, but I don't think that precludes other orgs from picking up the (considerable) slack. Certainly I'd like to see an org like this use local churches as resources and referrals (to and from), but I think you could easily keep it separate enough to still qualify for federal funding. I don't have any ideological or ethical problems with that, though anyone is welcome to raise some.

Ryan said...

I guess I kind of have a vision of churches as central clearinghouses for this sort of work. So someone goes to the church for help and that church has half a dozen or so people or related agencies that can provide the necessary assistance.
So while the church itself might not be providing drug therapy as such, they'll know who to call and will be able to keep track of that person as they navigate the system. I think that continuity of a single person or group keeping track of a needy soul could potentially be at least as valuable as the services themselves. I would hope to see the church as the central contact point that uses other agencies as resources, not the other way around.

On the issue of funding: I don't think churches have any business taking federal funds, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't direct people to federally-funded resources where appropriate. If someone's having trouble feeding the kids, yeah, get them on food stamps ASAP. Someone needs legal representation fighting a drug charge, put them in touch with legal aid. But in neither case should the church then turn over the care of that person to the other agencies and should still encourage that person to come to the church with needs.

Monica said...

The Bible is very clear that Christians individually have a special duty to take care of the poor, but I don't think that the church as an organization is probably the best way to run an operation like this. Helping people work through their problems is vastly more effective if there is a consistency of personnel and location. That means that it works best if you have full-time staff that can address a wide range of issues in one location. One of the things that consistently comes up as an roadblock for people who need services is that the services are often scattered over a wide geographical area. If you don't have a car, you've got to find a means of public transportation, and no matter which way you get there, it costs money and time. Often, if folks had the money and the time they needed to access all the social support services, they wouldn't need those services because they would be making it on their own.

Monica said...

I absolutely love their idea! I think we should start planning and recruiting and build another one. :-)

Kyle said...

I agree. Without addressing the multiple issues that lead to and prevent people from getting out of poverty, our efforts to help will yield very little success. Ryan, it sounds like an institution such as this would provide a great place to refer people to for services that and individual church most likely would be unable to provide.