Religious institutions deserve a fair shake

Scores of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, which would make religious institutions eligible for disaster relief funding. This is a common sense move that would keep the decisions about who receives government aid neutral with regard to religion –  granting churches, synagogues, mosques and temples the right to apply for federal assistance in the wake of a disaster.

The bill, introduced by a bipartisan coalition of representatives from New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, is well named – because it really is about fairness. Federal assistance is already granted to other non-profits, including museums, cultural centers and schools, all of which deliver essential services that the government would be otherwise responsible for providing to its citizens. Religious institutions deserve the same designation. Many of them provide vital social services such as soup kitchens, food pantries, libraries and schools.  In fact, many churches and synagogues in New York and New Jersey have been on the front lines since the storm, helping to provide basic needs to all storm victims in their communities, regardless of religious affiliation.

NYLAG knows firsthand the plight of New York religious organizations whose operations and facilities were damaged by Sandy. Our Storm Response Unit has fielded requests for assistance from over 70 sectarian and non-sectarian organizations thus far. In the early days post-Sandy we presented a well-attended training, specifically designed to educate nonprofits and answer their legal questions. We proactively reached out to offer assistance to all types of institutions affected by the storm.  Our priority has been to encourage every organization to apply for federal benefits, even if their eligibility is not yet clear. This remains critically important, whether or not the Fairness Act becomes law. The FEMA deadline for applications is now Wednesday, February 27. Please join with NYLAG in making sure that every organization affected by the storm submits an initial application for FEMA assistance. For more information, call our Storm Hotline at 212-584-3365 or visit [email protected]

I hope that the Nonprofit Fairness Act receives swift attention and affirmative passage in the US Senate so that religious institutions can access the same FEMA funding and Small Business Administration loans that other non-profit organizations are eligible to receive.  In the short term, our communities need every asset available to recover from Sandy.  Going forward, every nonprofit organization contributing to improving the quality of life in our nation deserves to know that when disaster strikes, their rights are recognized and will be protected.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Credit Catch 22

NYLAG joined the Coalition to Stop Credit Checks at City Hall on February 6, 2013.

On Wednesday, February 6, Shana Khader and Erica Kyzmir, attorneys with NYLAG’s Consumer Protection Project, gathered with others on the steps of City Hall to call for passage of legislation in New York City that would restrict the use of credit reports in hiring decisions. Incredibly, over half of all employers currently check the credit histories of job applicants and employees, and then use this information to make hiring, promoting, firing, and other employment decisions.

It is unfair to base employment decisions on poor credit brought upon by the recession, a catastrophic illness, a divorce, or other life events out of one’s control. There is no evidence that a person’s credit history has anything to do with work performance. There is plenty of evidence, however, that if you don’t have a job you will have a hard time paying your bills, and your credit rating may suffer as a result. Here’s the catch: You need a job to get out of debt, but your debt keeps you unemployed.

Credit-history screening eliminates opportunities for millions of workers and their families — and also hurts employers by reducing the pool of talented, motivated workers who can build businesses and strengthen our economy. Job-related credit screenings also perpetuate discrimination against minorities, students and immigrants, who have been long victimized by predatory and deceitful lending practices that lead to mounting debt and poor credit. Did I mention that an estimated one in four credit reports contains a serious error? It’s time New York passed a law to prevent this injustice.

A survey to be released next week by Rutgers University reports that nearly a quarter of Americans say they were laid off at some point after the recession hit, and nearly eight out of ten say they know someone who has lost a job. Unemployment is the sad new normal for too many Americans. Let’s not allow unfair, discriminatory and inaccurate credit checks to stand between qualified workers and the jobs they deserve.

NYLAG is a member of the New York Coalition to Stop Credit Checks in Employment. I urge you to join us in this campaign at www.creditcatch22.org and end employer credit checks now.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Great news from the Mayor’s office

Mayor Bloomberg announced today a mold remediation program that will provide free mold clean-up for nearly 2,000 of NYC’s hardest hit homes following Hurricane Sandy. This is welcome news for people who are unable to live in their mold-infested homes – and for those who are risking their health by doing so. With private insurers dithering about claims, and FEMA often low-balling its financial assistance, too many of those affected by Sandy feel justifiably abandoned. Into the fray steps the Mayor, in collaboration with the Robin Hood Foundation and the American Red Cross, with a $15 million remediation life line. The program is to be administered through The Neighborhood Revitalization NYC, which is an affiliate of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a community development not-for-profit corporation with 30 years of experience working in New York City.

This kind of aggressive action on the part of the City is to be applauded. As we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the warm summer temperatures quickly created a serious mold health threat that went unaddressed by local officials. By acting now, before the seasons change, the Mayor is helping to minimize a future crisis. The long-term health effects of the storm are becoming more apparent every day. One NYLAG client, who along with her daughter and baby grandson evacuated their Rockaway Beach apartment before the storm, is still living in temporary housing waiting for remediation work to begin. She and the baby have both been made ill by the mold; the baby coughs whenever they return and our client may have bronchitis. This is a story we see repeatedly in clients from Staten Island, Coney Island, Long Island and other impacted communities. I thank the Mayor’s office and its partners for stepping up and taking action.

Click Here to read the Mayor’s announcement.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Too many Sandy victims are unaware of FEMA deadline

UPDATE:  The deadline to apply for FEMA grants and SBA loans has been extended to April 13, 2013.

The Transitional Sheltering Program has extended its checkout date  to                               April 14, 2013.

This morning I had the chance to talk with Brian Lehrer, host of WNYC’s popular public affairs program, The Brian Lehrer Show, (and some of his listeners who called in) about an important deadline looming for those eligible to apply for a FEMA grant or Small Business Administration loan for property damage caused by Storm Sandy.
(Listen to the WNYC segment here.)

If these applications are not submitted by Monday, January 28, people who are entitled to federal disaster relief funding to rebuild and repair their homes and recoup the value of the damages will not receive it.

A severely storm- damaged in home in Far Rockaway.

NYLAG has been successfully filing FEMA appeals for weeks now. But to appeal, you must have already applied – by the 28th. Many families are simply unaware of the fact that they may be eligible, or they have been confused by the complicated, jargon-heavy application process. Immigrant families in particular are not applying, despite the fact that many immigrant families are eligible for a FEMA grant.

NYLAG has created a flyer with details about the deadline, eligibility requirements and contact information to apply for FEMA grants or SBA loans. I hope you will join with me in these few remaining days by helping to spread the word. This deadline is a vital step in the long road to recovery.

Click here for more information and to view or print the FEMA/ SBA deadline flyer.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Why would we revoke a law that keeps women safe?

In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to alleviate the problem of intimate partner violence at the federal level. Since then, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have regularly reauthorized VAWA as a “no-brainer” to protect battered women – that is, until now. After months of heated debate, the House stalled and the legislation failed to pass. And so, for the first time in 19 years, a year begins without VAWA, a crucial law to protect victims of domestic violence – and a critical funding source for the programs that serve them.

In addition to the legal protections it offers, VAWA provides funds to states to distribute to shelters and agencies that help victims of abuse. Many of these programs are now struggling to find replacement revenue, and many could be shut down within the year if their funding dries up.

Civil legal services are frequently cited as the most effective form of relief available to help victims of domestic violence. NYLAG is a recognized expert in this area, helping women file civil orders of protection to keep them safe, and securing child support or marital assets to help them gain financial independence. We know firsthand that VAWA works: it lifts the veil of secrecy that hides family violence and allows victims to break free. This law has been highly successful in protecting women, holding batterers accountable, and providing resources to educate and build awareness for this pervasive societal problem.

Perhaps no demographic has benefitted more from VAWA’s protections than undocumented immigrant victims. For these women, immigration status is just one more weapon that their abusers use to intimidate them into silence by saying, “You can’t call the police because they will deport you.” Cowed by fear of deportation, many victims don’t report abuse to the police, seek medical attention or avail themselves of court-based remedies. This is especially true for mothers who worry that, if deported, they will be forced to leave their US citizen children behind to be raised by their abusers. Our ability to help these women is a direct result of VAWA, which allows organizations like NYLAG to help undocumented immigrant victims file for immigration relief without the abuser’s knowledge. As one of our attorneys, who works with immigrant victims, put it, “This is a law that works. This is a law that lets her leave.”

Why would we revoke a law that keeps women safe?

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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A victory for Sandy victims, but a long road ahead

Last night, the House of Representatives passed a $50.7 billion relief bill for those affected by Superstorm Sandy. This long overdue measure represents a sign of hope that the many people still awaiting aid will finally begin to see some progress. On this landmark night, I had the opportunity to join the discussion on NBC New York Nightly News. My comments in the clip above address why this funding is so critical for the millions of people and businesses affected by the storm, as well as for the organizations scrambling to provide adequate recovery services. Without this bill’s provisions, FEMA would be unable to sustain its own relief efforts past March, and the public and private service agencies already struggling to meet their communities’ overwhelming needs would be left in the lurch.

This action comes 78 days after Sandy upended the lives of thousands of New Yorkers.  For many, that is 78 days in the dark or without access to their homes and businesses. Approximately 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed statewide, and Governor Cuomo noted yesterday that more than 15,000 New Yorkers still cannot return to their homes. Meanwhile, 265,000 New York businesses were affected, with 42,000 still awaiting financial assistance.

As welcome as the passage of the bill is, the allocation of a mere $1 million to storm-related legal services (only 0.002% of the total relief package) is a disgrace. This funding can support fewer than 10 attorneys who could handle a total of 500 cases in a year. Given the vast scope of the disaster, this is simply not enough. Legal services enable storm victims to maintain safe, affordable, habitable homes, appeal inadequate FEMA and insurance decisions, and resolve an entire host of other critical problems. NYLAG alone has encountered thousands of victims who stand to benefit from legal interventions. The time to act is now. Any comprehensive emergency response model must include a properly scaled legal services component to ensure that the rights of victims are protected.

It is vital for the country to understand that this bill is only the first step on the long road to recovery. Needs will grow and change, and we cannot let Sandy victims be forgotten with the flip of a calendar page. Legal advocates are providing concrete, tangible benefits to storm victims by fulfilling their basic needs for shelter and income supports. I challenge our government to do the same.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Thank you for putting a roof – 12 of them – over our heads.

A few days ago, NYLAG returned to its downtown Manhattan offices for the first time since Superstorm Sandy. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you, again, to UJA-Federation of New York for donating the office space that housed NYLAG’s management team and its new Storm Response Unit, and to the 11 law firms across the City who sheltered our other legal units. Because of their generosity, we were able to mobilize and respond almost overnight to the needs of storm victims.  Our staff worked around the clock, supported by pro bono attorneys from scores of law firms, to ramp up services. As of December 31, our new Storm Response Unit had helped more than 2,500 people. We could never have responded as quickly or as effectively to Sandy without this extraordinary support from the New York City community.

While our own displacement was an inconvenience and an operational challenge, the displacement suffered by so many of our clients and neighbors was far more devastating. And while we have now returned to a functional workspace, we recognize that thousands of those in the hardest hit areas are still without homes or businesses to which they can return.  Many of them are struggling to find shelter and pay for basic necessities like food, clothing, and medicine. They will need the strength of the entire community to help them rebuild their lives. To play our part in this recovery process, NYLAG begins the New Year by launching a vastly expanded Storm Response Unit that will address the entrenched, long term legal challenges now facing victims of the storm. We are planning for the long road ahead, and I look forward to updating you on our progress.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The fiscal cliff that is always there

As we wait to see what life on the other side of the fiscal cliff will look like for our nation and the world, it strikes me that low-income New Yorkers already know all about fiscal cliffs – they live on the edge of one every day. If you are poor, or near-poor, there is no safety net to catch you, no savings account or network of friends and family with the means to keep you from falling over the edge.

Nothing has brought this into sharper focus than Hurricane Sandy. We are already seeing how this disaster, like so many others both natural and man-made, is most devastating for the poorest among us. As of today, NYLAG has helped 2,500 storm victims deal with their immediate civil legal issues. And we proudly begin 2013 by launching a vastly expanded Storm Response initiative to address the long-term legal challenges that would otherwise be the tipping point for these vulnerable New Yorkers.

NYLAG’s Storm Response Unit – a dedicated team of 27 attorneys, paralegals and financial counselors, supported by a cadre of pro bono lawyers – will focus on two pressing issues: shelter and economic stability. People are still living in the dark without heat, some with mold spreading to their living spaces, creating landlord-tenant disputes over habitability and repairs. Lenders are now demanding to inspect the properties of homeowners, who were already facing foreclosure prior to the storm, before moving forward with loan modifications and settlements – a stalling tactic that is in direct violation of orders from the Attorney General. Numerous clients are struggling with convoluted benefit applications and insurance claim processes, while a growing number need help appealing wrongful denials. Others who have lost a home or a job need financial counseling to learn how to deal with debt, get credit and benefits, and recover lost documents.

There is no doubt that Sandy has created a treacherous new cliff for low-income New Yorkers to traverse. But it really only amplified a vulnerability that was always there. A lost job, a debilitating illness, or any number of personal disasters can easily become their own Sandy. No matter what happens in Washington, for these people the fiscal cliff is ever-present.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Recommended Reading

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2012 conference of the National Cancer Legal Services Network, held just a few weeks after Storm Sandy hit New York. This terrific event was organized by Randye Retkin, director of NYLAG’s LegalHealth Unit and attended – despite the storm – by professionals from over 50 organizations from around the country working to alleviate the legal and economic consequences of cancer.

The keynote speaker was Eric Manheimer, a physician, writer and social commentator who is the former Medical Director at Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the nation. Dr. Manheimer has had years of front-line experience caring for cancer patients and dealing with the economic, policy and ethical issues that surround patient care. He is also the author of Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, a memoir in which he shares his views as a doctor, and as a newly diagnosed cancer patient himself. He spoke movingly about the unique circumstances and challenges faced by his patients and about his struggles dealing with his own cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. He also addressed how a natural disaster such as Sandy affects people with serious illnesses and how the “darkness makes visible” the health care needs and health care inequities they face.

Eric Manheimer, M.D.

Dr. Manheimer recently authored an article in The New England Journal of Medicine that expands on the theme of “seeing in the dark,” revealing the fragility of patients in New York City’s public hospitals, and the “interconnectedness of everything” they face – poverty, marginal to no housing, lack of insurance, education debt, language and legal status issues, unemployment, bankruptcy, and untreated mental and physical conditions. At NYLAG we know only too well how these risk factors play out in the lives of our clients. If Storm Sandy helps to put the spotlight on the enormity of the problems they face every day – problems that were there before the lights went out, then some measure of good will have come from this devastating disaster.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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More pro bono is a great idea for New Yorkers and New York Lawyers

Last week the 2012 Report of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services was submitted to NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The report is the work of a diverse group of leaders from private practice, the judicial system, civil legal assistance providers, and others charged with  finding new solutions to the acute and growing need for free legal services for low-income New Yorkers. The report makes for sobering reading:

“Each year, more than 2.3 million low-income New Yorkers must navigate the complexities of the State’s civil justice system without the assistance of counsel in disputes over the most basic necessities of life… Indeed, even before the most recent natural disaster in the form of Hurricane Sandy, the Task Force determined that at best only 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income New Yorkers are currently being met.”

This access-to-justice gap is not only denying justice to many people, it has also placed a burden on the state, increasing costs and reducing quality. The recession in 2008 exacerbated the problem and now Hurricane Sandy presents a whole new set of pressing legal needs for those affected by the storm.

The report has many worthy recommendations, including increases in funding and more involvement of law schools and non-lawyers. But in particular, I heartily endorse the idea that all lawyers be encouraged to perform 50 hours of pro bono service annually, up from 20 hours currently. I believe this is the right next step in expanding access to civil legal services – following on Judge Lippman’s own initiative earlier this year, leading to a new rule requiring 50 hours of pro bono work as a condition of admission to the New York bar. By doubling or tripling their pro bono involvement, today’s seasoned practitioners will not only bring justice to those in need, but stand in solidarity with a new generation of lawyers behind  the central importance of pro bono work in the life of every lawyer.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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