From the United Way: Neighborhood Legal Services serves most vulnerable residents

Low-income residents are empowered through free legal assistance through Neighborhood Legal Services programs. (Contributed photo)

Founded in 1976, Neighborhood Legal Services provides free civil legal services to families and individuals challenged by poverty and/or disability throughout Western New York. Based upon the feedback our office receives from clients and from advocates who serve our client community, the legal needs associated with housing instability and homelessness created by the lack of safe and affordable housing, together with challenges associated with financial instability, are some of the biggest issues our clients confront.

The financial support Neighborhood Legal Services receives from the United Way of Greater Niagara allows our organization to provide the legal assistance necessary to ensure that people challenged by poverty in Niagara County can meet their most basic needs. Through the generous support of the United Way, Neighborhood Legal Services’ Public Benefits and Housing Programs are available to advocate for families and individuals facing financial crises. Often our clients are facing eviction; some are homeless. Many clients are unaware of the public benefits that exist to stabilize their families, or of the legal defenses available to prevent an eviction. Others have attempted to access benefits and were denied, or had current benefits terminated. With no emergency assistance or income, homelessness becomes a looming possibility.

Over 12% of Niagara County residents live at or below the poverty level, and in the City of Niagara Falls over 27% of residents live in poverty. Public benefits including Food Stamps/SNAP benefits, Medicaid and cash assistance are often the only safety net preventing homelessness and hunger for families challenged by poverty. The Homeless Alliance of Western New York estimates that on any given night in Niagara County, 1,929 people experienced homelessness, 28% of which are minor children.

For over 35 years, the Housing Program of the Niagara County office of Neighborhood Legal Services has worked diligently to prevent low income individuals and families from becoming homeless. Neighborhood Legal Services attorneys provide representation in city and town courts to tenants facing eviction. Staff members gather facts from our clients, assess possible defenses and discuss options, as well as desired outcomes. If there are no legal defenses, and the landlord will not negotiate, Neighborhood Legal Services staff advise the client about the eviction procedure and the possibility of obtaining financial assistance for moving and relocation from the Niagara County Department of Social Services.

If there are legal defenses, Neighborhood Legal Services staff prepare the case by obtaining copies of any necessary records, identifying potential witnesses, and/or conducting lead research. The advocate will generally speak with the landlord in an effort to reach an agreement between the parties. If this is not possible, our attorneys provide representation to the client at the court hearing and ask the judge to render a decision.

Many of our clients are faced with substandard housing conditions, or with a lack of heat or water. Neighborhood Legal Services provides the legal assistance necessary to require landlords to make necessary repairs, or to provide tenants with a reduction in rent (a “rental abatement”) due to unsafe housing conditions.

Neighborhood Legal Services also educates people on their rights and responsibilities both as tenants and as landlords. This June, the New York State Legislature passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. This new law significantly changes the procedure a landlord must follow to evict a tenant, and provides tenants challenged by poverty with more opportunities to prevent their eviction.

Often, our clients face eviction because of a sudden loss of income. Neighborhood Legal Services Public Benefits Program represents clients who have been denied, reduced, sanctioned or discontinued from Temporary Assistance, SNAP, Medicaid, HEAP, emergency assistance, special grants to secure housing (e.g. assistance with moving expenses, storage fees or a security agreement, etc.) and/or emergency shelter assistance by the Niagara County Department of Social Services. Our advocacy staff assesses the legal problem, and determines whether the action taken by the Department of Social Services is legally correct. If it is correct, Neighborhood Legal Services staff will advise and explain this to the client. Otherwise, a staff attorney will contact a supervisor at NCDSS, investigate the facts, research the law, present findings to the supervisor and request that the action be reversed. Many times, this will correct the problem.

Neighborhood Legal Services advises people on how to navigate the maze of complicated regulations that govern eligibility for public assistance. When necessary to obtain benefits, our staff provides legal representation to ensure that families and individuals receive the assistance to which they are entitled. Through the support of the United Way, families are able to secure the benefits they need to put food on the table, maintain housing, and receive medical care.

Homelessness, the stress of a potential eviction, and/or an inability to pay for utilities including heat, water and electricity negatively impacts both mental and physical health. Through the financial support Neighborhood Legal Services receives from the United Way, individuals and families receive the legal assistance they need to meet their most basic needs, and most importantly, build stronger and healthier communities.

  

Grace Andriette is the deputy director at Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc. For more information about the services that Neighborhood Legal Services provides, or to arrange for a community training, please call 847-0650.

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