A call away: Legal help for tough times more important than ever

Legal Aid office manager Swaroopa Hurli works at her desk in the Legal Aid office inside the United Way building in Columbus, Ind., Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

With recent job losses, a global pandemic and a shaky economy, many low-income residents need legal help more than ever.

Based on data from previous recessions, the most significant legal issues likely to surface under the current conditions will be unemployment and housing issues, including evictions, according to a fact sheet provided by the regional Legal Aid office in Columbus.

But not all problems are financial. When job losses and shaky finances combine, it raises levels of anxiety and uncertainty to the point where family violence and emotional crises escalate, Legal Aid officials said.

Officials at Legal Aid won’t cite specific cases, calling it a matter of confidentiality between lawyers and clients. However, the organization does say economically insecure and vulnerable family members may become at risk of physical harm and emotional trauma without legal assistance.

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Some who cannot afford their own lawyer might eventually decide that Legal Aid — District 11, which has more than 75 attorneys serving an eight-county area, is their only option. Headquartered in the Doug Otto United Way Center at 1531 13th St., the regional Legal Aid office serves residents of Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Rush and Shelby counties.

The free provider of legal services offers advice clinics and counseling on civic matters. And if more assistance is needed, the organization may be able to arrange pro bono personal representation, Legal Aid paralegal Kashmira Mehta said.

When a resident qualifies for assistance from Legal Aid, that person is referred to one of the volunteer attorneys, Mehta said. Due to the COVID-19 situation, most information exchanged between attorney and client is still being done over the phone, she said.

Although some families may already be financially struggling, Columbus attorney Grant Tucker said he anticipates many will likely wait until this fall before seeking legal help. That’s largely due to a moratorium on evictions that began in March and lasted through mid-August, along with a $600-a-week additional unemployment benefit provided each week, that also ended last month.

A few weeks after the moratorium on rental evictions elapsed in mid-August, the Trump administration issued a directive halting the eviction of certain renters though the end of this year.

However, the presidential directive applies only to those who:

Demonstrate they have sought government assistance to make their rental payments.

Declare they are unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 hardships.

Affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted.

While the order will provide temporary relief for millions, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, warns that the presidential action only delays evictions, rather than preventing them.

“While an eviction moratorium is essential, it is a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed,” Yentel stated.

Although the $600-a-week additional unemployment payment has also expired, the Trump administration said they would provide an additional $300 a month on top of regular jobless benefits. But as more Americans request the benefit, the faster the limited amount of money will run out, according to a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With changing conditions and restrictions, local courts will likely be increasingly called upon to resolve disputes between renters and landowners, Yentel said.

“This is really scary,” said Columbus attorney Tim Vrana, who said he worries a huge wave of evictions may eventually take place across the U.S. when government protections expire. For example, the Rental Assistance Portal operated through Indiana Housing Now is no longer accepting applications.

While the Indiana COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program can provide up to $500 a month in assistance for those directly impacted by the virus, the maximum amount available is $2,000. And even that amount will be denied if you are receiving additional housing assistance.

While the Indiana Supreme Court has launched a free program that allows landlords and tenants to negotiate a payment arrangement, participation is purely voluntary and all parties must agree to any settlement.

Although it is true that workplaces in Indiana have the right to fire employees “at will” without providing reason to do so, it is still possible to file a wrongful termination under certain conditions during a pandemic.

For instance, the NOLO legal guide says it would generally be illegal in Indiana for your employer to fire you:

In retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning.

For refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm due to unsafe working conditions.

For refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order.

For taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Because you have a pre-existing condition — including your age — that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19.

Also, if you were essentially forced to quit your job because of serious coronavirus-related safety hazards that put you at risk, you might have grounds to sue your employer for “wrongful constructive termination” in violation of public policy.

Mehta urges low-income residents to contact Legal Aid to arrange to discuss their problems with a volunteer attorney, in order to examine all options.

“We get a lot of calls when people are facing a legal situation for the first time, and they don’t know what to do,” Mehta said.

Even when legal options are limited, restrictions and conditions might change. And in addition to legal advice, Mehta said her organization can also contact other nonprofits and organizations capable of offering assistance, Mehta said.

Funding for Legal Aid comes from the state Civil Legal Aid Fund, Interest on Lawyer Trust Account Funds, Indiana Criminal Justice Institute and other community support.

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Founded in 1982, Legal Aid – District 11 has a pool of more than 75 attorneys who offer pro bono services throughout an eight-county region: Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Rush and Shelby.

Appointed by the Indiana Supreme Court, Legal Aid provides advice clinics, community referrals and pro bono representation. Clinics provide free legal advice and counseling and, if one needs more assistance, they can apply for pro bono representation. Many need more than just legal assistance and staff members will refer to other community agencies who may be able to assist.

Their offices are located at 1531 13th St., Suite G330 in the Doug Otto United Way building. Staff members are Tasha Mann, executive director; Swaroopa Hurli, office manager; and Kashmira Mehta, paralegal.

For more information, call 812-378-0358.

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The state’s rental assistance program during the pandemic may be accessed at indianahousingnow.org, through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA). Renters from outside of Marion County are eligible for programs that help cover monthly rent payments and past due rent.

Individuals seeking rental assistance living in Marion County should visit: www.indyrent.org.

Hoosiers that are homeless, in a housing crisis, or in need of immediate assistance should call 2-1-1 and ask to connect with a navigator.

In Columbus

In Columbus, the rental assistance program is available through the website columbus.in.gov/community-development/cdbg-information/short-term-rent-assistance-program/.

The assistance must bring the renter current with rental payments, with the remainder of any delinquent payments being paid prior to assistance being granted. Residents must reside within the boundaries of the city of Columbus.

Checks will be made payable to the landlord, who is required to provide a W-9 form to the city. Income verification documentation, a duplication of benefits form, a copy of the current lease and a letter of delinquency and/or utility bills is also required.

Applications are available in English and Spanish on the city’s website and should be mailed, emailed, or dropped off to the Administrative Resources association (ARa) at 748 Franklin St. ARa is administering the program for the city and will process applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

Additional information can be found on the city’s website at columbus.in.gov, or by contacting Victoria Bechert at ARa at (812) 376-9949.

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  • Human Services, Inc. — Provides emergency assistance that is income-based. 4355 E. County Road 600N, Columbus, IN 47203. Contact: 800-296-8026 or (812) 372-8407.
  • Indiana National Guard Family Assistance Program — Provides assistance to active duty Guard families or veterans of any branch. 711 N. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis, IN 46204. Contact: 800-237-2850, Ext. 72694.
  • Salvation Army Corps of Bartholomew County — Provides emergency assistance, when funding is available. 2525 Illinois Ave., Columbus, IN 47201. Contact: (812) 327-7118.
  • Lincoln Central Neighborhood Family Center — Assistance provided for residents of LCNF service area, only when other assistance is exhausted. 1039 Sycamore St., Columbus, IN 47201. Contact: (812) 379-1630.
  • Love Chapel — Provides emergency funding for disconnections only. 292 Center St., Columbus, IN 47201. Contact: (812) 372-9421.
  • United Way of Bartholomew County — Can help those in need of assistance connect with other agencies. 1531 13th St., Suite 1100, Columbus, IN 47201. Contact: 2-1-1 or (812) 376-3001.
  • Columbus Township Trustee — Provides emergency assistance for township residents. Contact: 812-372-8249. (Columbus City Utilities can also provide contact numbers for trustees of other townships).

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Columbus City Utilities is choosing not to disconnect customers, despite the state moratorium preventing shutoffs expiring.

Columbus City Utilities will offer a standard six-month payment plan, as well as nine-month plans and 12-month plans considered on a case-by-case basis.

More information about penalties and fees is available at columbusutilities.org/billing-rates/.

More information about utilities assistance will be posted on the department’s website at columbusutilities.org.

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Legal Aid will have a free Legal Aid Phone Clinic for residents of its eight-county district on Sept. 22. The district includes Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Rush, and Shelby counties. The phone clinic will be conducted from 3 to 5:30 p.m. with registration required between noon to 1:30 p.m.

Individuals calling to the Legal Aid Phone Clinic can expect to receive a brief consultation to answer general questions, offer legal information, or to receive other limited pro se assistance or advice, over the phone. Individuals seeking legal consultation must register by calling Legal Aid at 812-378-0358 between noon and 1:30 p.m. Sept. 22. A volunteer attorney will return calls to registered individuals between 3 and 5:30 p.m. Individuals must be available during those times to answer a call from an attorney.