We can all agree that equal justice under the law is a right, not a privilege.
When Hurricane Irma destroyed a quarter of the housing in the Florida Keys, Jeff Scurlock of Islamorada lost almost everything he owned. To make matters worse, his job at the mobile home park where he lived was also gone. The third strike came two months later when FEMA denied his applications for housing assistance and help replacing personal property.
Meanwhile, the residents of Seahorse RV Park in Big Pine Key thought they had fared better. Irma damaged, but did not destroy, their homes. With no place else to go, many moved back in. But their relief quickly turned to panic when a representative of the property owner taped unlawful eviction notices to their doors. “Within the next week,” the notes said, “we will be removing damaged trailers and disassembling any utility hookups.”
On the surface, disasters appear democratic, affecting entire geographic areas without regard to income. Media coverage tends to focus on the immediate crisis, leaving the impression that life is back to normal when the power comes back on and Disaster Recovery Centers close. While that narrative is attractive, it is false. After 25 years of advocating for disaster survivors in Florida, I know that low-income residents suffer much longer.
For anyone struggling to make ends meet, a disaster like a hurricane is likely to wreak financial havoc.
Evacuation can be expensive. Relocation can disrupt custody arrangements, education, and/or employment. Food spoiled by power outages can leave parents to choose between paying rent and feeding their children. Unscrupulous landlords refuse to make repairs, demand rent for ruined housing and price gouge to take advantage of the housing shortage. Families who return home might be met by damage that creates serious health issues. Shady contractors target elderly homeowners. Insurers may wrongfully deny coverage.
Often, these problems require legal help to solve. But too many times people are forced to live with their rights trampled and their economic livelihoods ruined because they cannot afford legal help.
The people in the examples above are lucky compared to others; Legal Services of Greater Miami (LSGMI), a federally funded civil legal aid organization, was able to help. Attorney Maria Alvarez worked with Scurlock to navigate the complex appeals process, and within a week FEMA had reversed its denial. At Seahorse RV Park, attorney Nejla Calvo negotiated with the park owner to halt the unlawful evictions and find a fair resolution.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) estimates that in the counties hit by hurricane force winds, more than 1.2 million people live in households with annual incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Without access to civil legal aid, these Floridians are shut out of the justice system.
The legal needs of low-income people left in Irma’s wake are piling on to a justice system that is already struggling under an excess of cases in which one or both parties are unrepresented. In The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, LSC reports that seven in 10 low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem during 2016, including issues with healthcare, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence. Yet federally funded legal aid providers have the funding to serve only a small fraction of those who need their help.
Congress does not provide enough funds to meet even the basic civil legal needs of low-income Americans. The funding shortage is even greater in Florida, which has the distinction of being one of only two states with not one dollar in the budget to provide for the civil legal needs of its poorest citizens. The Legal Services Corporation has asked Congress for supplemental funding to provide civil legal aid to low-income survivors of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Of the $12 million requested to serve them, LSC proposes to hire much-needed additional staff and pro bono coordinators. Their work would benefit thousands of hurricane survivors, speed Florida’s recovery and restore prosperity to communities.
Congress must appropriate funding that permits legal aid groups to provide legal help, including representation, for as long as necessary for recovery, which we know can take years. In the aftermath of a disaster, rights are meaningless unless recovery resources include civil legal aid.
Charles Elsesser is a co-founder and member of the board of directors of the Community Justice Project in Miami.