NYLAG Calls for Expansion of Lautenberg Amendment

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Earlier today, on behalf of NYLAG, I issued the following press release asking President Obama and Congress to act swiftly to expand the Lautenberg Amendment on behalf of thousands of Jewish families facing religious persecution in Ukraine.

NYLAG Calls for Expansion of Lautenberg Amendment as Situation for Jews in Ukraine Worsens

The Ukrainian letter calling upon Jews to register.

The Ukrainian letter calling upon Jews to register.

(NEW YORK – April 18, 2014) In light of the civil unrest and escalating violence in Ukraine, New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) is calling for the immediate expansion of the Lautenberg Amendment. The amendment, named for the late U.S. Senator, Frank Lautenberg, has for many years been a pathway to freedom for Jews and other religious minorities fleeing persecution.

In March, as the situation in Ukraine deteriorated and Jews living in the country reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, NYLAG immigration attorneys began meeting with U.S. and other officials to push for an expansion of the Lautenberg Amendment to provide eligibility to a wider population of Ukrainian Jews.

NYLAG stepped up its efforts earlier this week after it was reported that Jewish worshipers leaving Passover service in an eastern Ukraine town were handed leaflets by masked men requiring Ukrainian Jews to register their names and proof of property ownership, or risk deportation. This week, NYLAG attorneys met with a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Corey Booker, heir to Mr. Lautenberg’s Senate seat, to discuss the possibility of expanding the application and implementation of the Lautenberg Amendment.

“The political uncertainty, the imminent economic collapse, and now blatant acts of anti-Semitism have triggered a new wave of fear among the Jews of Ukraine, leading to an increased movement to migrate. Given the history, the propaganda, and the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine, Jews have good reason to expect that their lives will change quickly and dramatically for the worse,” said Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge. “President Obama and Congress need to act now to protect the Jews of Ukraine. The Lautenberg Amendment can be the mechanism for securing the safety of Jews facing religious persecution. Not acting swiftly may result in dire consequences for thousands of Jewish families currently trapped in the Ukraine.”

The Lautenberg Amendment was first introduced in 1990 to grant eligibility for refugee status to Jews fleeing the Former Soviet Union to resettle in the U.S. In 2004 the amendment was expanded to assist religious minorities fleeing Iran. Under the Lautenberg Amendment, individuals are eligible to apply for refugee status if they can prove they are members of a religious minority subject to persecution, and have so-called “first degree” relatives — spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents — permanently living in the United States.

In light of the worsening political situation and the recent wave of migration by Ukrainian Jews, NYLAG is proposing a broader interpretation of the amendment to allow the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins of permanent US residents to enter the US under the refugee program. Expanding the policy would potentially allow a greater percentage of Ukrainian Jews to obtain refugee status in the US.


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

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Incremental Steps Still Spell Progress

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On Sunday the New York Times correctly called upon President Obama to halt the high rates of deportations of law-abiding, productive immigrants who deserve to remain in the US. (Yes He Can, on Immigration) The editorial acknowledges that it is not the President’s fault that Congressional inaction has stalled the drive toward comprehensive immigration reform, but urges him to move quickly to make policy changes that are within his control. This includes expanding a NYLAG recommendation enacted by the President two years ago permitting many young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, to apply for immigration relief through a process called “Deferred Action”. While it is not a pathway to citizenship or a green card, Deferred Action entitles certain immigrants to receive temporary work authorization and other benefits. Under this policy, NYLAG has been able to protect thousands of young people from the risk of deportation. It is time for the Administration to offer the same protection to the parents of Dreamers, and to the many other undocumented immigrants forced to live in the shadows.

If he acts, the President would be following the lead of states and local governments who are not waiting for federal reforms, but taking meaningful steps now to help immigrants integrate into their communities, and contribute more in return.

Last November the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) published a report about the significant surge in pro-immigrant policies in 2013. This includes extending access to driver’s licenses or other IDs (New York City is working on one right now), along with moves to expand workplace rights for domestic workers and protections for workers whose employers exploit them based on their status.

The NILC report highlights another trend, where New York State has a head start: improved access to higher education for immigrant students. New York was one of the first states to enact legislation (in 2002) that provides in-state tuition rates for students attending state colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status. 16 states have since adopted similar laws, and several more are getting close.

Unfortunately, earlier this year New York came up one vote short of passing a bill that would have taken this one step further by giving undocumented immigrant students access to public financial aid. This is a shame. Too many talented and motivated young immigrants – among our best and brightest – cannot afford the cost of a college education. I hope we get this right in the future.

As to President Obama, I remain optimistic. There is a balance of powers for a reason.  He has the opportunity to ensure his legacy as an advocate for deserving immigrants.

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

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Justice and Commonsense

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Client: Mother and ChildMany of us in the nonprofit community are on tenterhooks this week, as we await the unveiling of the State’s final budget. In addition to funding decisions that will impact our ability to serve struggling New Yorkers this year, there is another item that justice and commonsense would suggest made it into the final version. The Sanctions Reform Bill (A.2669/S.4830) would correct unfair and unnecessary policies governing people who apply for or receive public assistance benefits in New York State.

As a condition of receiving public benefits, recipients must, if able, participate in work-related activities, such as employment, education, and job training. If they do not comply, sanctions are imposed that reduce or eliminate their benefits for a period of three to six months. These penalties were put in place to prevent welfare fraud, but unfortunately they appear to have little impact beyond human suffering and skyrocketing costs.

Human suffering:

  • A disproportionate number of those sanctioned are disabled, ill, caring for young children or in other ways unable to participate in work activities. Others are able to comply, but for legitimate reasons could not participate in their work-related activity for some limited period of time.
  • A whopping 81% of administrative Fair Hearings related to work activity in New York State are overturned, but not until great harm has been done to low-income, vulnerable families.
  • Reduced or eliminated benefits lead to hunger, poor health, housing instability and homelessness. Families that already live without, live with less.
  • Sanctioned families are put under tremendous stress, exacerbating mental and physical disabilities, increasing the incidence of domestic violence, and disrupting the transition, for those who can, from welfare to work.

Societal Costs:

  • That 81% of hearings overturned? According to the Empire Justice Center, in 2011 there were 57,000 hearings related to work activities at an estimated cost to the State and districts of $18 million.
  • The underlying inefficiency of the Fair Hearing process, and subsequent costly appeals, add to this burden.
  • Sanctions drive up costs related to heath care and sheltering the homeless, straining already over-burdened pubic services.

The Sanctions Reform Bill proposes that the government be required to determine if an individual is unable to comply due to a disability, lack of child care or transportation. This just makes sense. The bill would prevent, presumably, the vast majority of sanctions from being imposed in the first place on those who cannot participate. For those who can comply with the work requirements, the system would allow the sanctions to be lifted immediately upon compliance, instead of forcing people to wait months to get back on the path to employment.

The work-activity policies we have now are indefensible. Low-income families are suffering unnecessarily, and all of us are paying the price. Let’s hope Albany agrees.

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

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Is The New York DREAM Act Still Alive?

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On March 17, the NY State Senate narrowly defeated the NY DREAM Act, a bill that would give undocumented immigrant students access to public financial assistance and create a fund to finance scholarships. This was a huge blow to those of us who see the bill as a natural next step for a state that has led the nation in progressive immigration policy.

Comprehensive, national reform of our badly broken immigration laws may not be happening as soon as we had hoped, but in the face of congressional inaction, states and local governments have not stood idle. Instead, they have made significant progress in establishing policies that provide added rights and protections for immigrants.

Before the bill’s defeat, Governor Cuomo said that if it made it to his desk he would sign the DREAM Act. High-profile supporters including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor de Blasio have called for the bill’s inclusion in the budget even after its defeat. Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz and others say the bill still might be alive if the two houses can agree on a way to pay for the program without using taxpayers’ dollars.

A 2012 study by The Johns Hopkins University that tracked children from age 13 into their early 30s from families with diverse backgrounds found that the best students, and later the most successful young adults, were born in foreign countries and came to the U.S. before reaching their teens. I think in part this is because they have been through so much, and their experiences have given them a huge sense of responsibility to their families, their country and to themselves. They work part time jobs, help out at home, study heard, get good grades, and are leaders in their community. But a semester at SUNY can cost $8,000 – $9,000. If your parents are working two jobs, and what little money you make helps to pay the family bills, that probably isn’t going to happen. Unless we make it happen.

In 2002 New York enacted legislation granting all students, regardless of their status, in-state tuition rates for attending state colleges and universities. Now, we have the opportunity to lead once more and eliminate an even more formidable barrier to higher education by giving our immigrant youth access to financial aid.

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

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Bipartisanship Spells Disaster for Low-Income Families

Food Stamps Groceries

The $956 billion farm bill was signed by President Obama on Friday, February 7, 2014, at Michigan State University.

Apparently our legislators have finally found something to agree on: cutting billions in food assistance for hungry Americans. That’s what the Senate did when it passed the long awaited farm bill last week, which President Obama has signed into law. By all appearances the bill will help farmers and the larger US economy, creating jobs and encouraging exports. I have no argument with that: a thriving farming industry is good for everyone. But it is unconscionable, and ironic, that the same legislation that supports businesses that grow the food that feeds America is taking food out of the mouths of hungry children, working parents, seniors and veterans.

The farm bill is projected to cut $17 billion from the federal budget over the next ten years. Almost half of it – over $8 billion – will come from cuts to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cut will reduce food benefits by an average of $90 per month for approximately 1.7 million people, or 850,000 families living in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

New York State will be particularly hard hit. 300,000 families – highly concentrated in New York City and living in deep poverty – will be affected:

  • 62% are families with children
  • 36% are working families
  • 79% have annual incomes below the federal poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four)
  • 29% have annual incomes below 50% of the federal poverty line ($5,835 for an individual)

New York is not only disproportionately impacted by the number of families who will suffer from the cuts. At the same time, the average economic loss per family in our State is expected to be higher than the $90 average because the bill specifically eliminates the higher standard rate the State uses to calculate SNAP benefits. This comes at a particularly bad time for poor and low-income residents of New York City. Let me count the ways:

1. According to hunger-relief charity Feeding America, SNAP benefits are already inadequate for most families to purchase a healthy diet throughout the month.

2. The farm bill cut follows an earlier SNAP reduction of $36/month for a family of four, which was introduced in November, leaving most households with less than $1.40 per person per meal.

3. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, living in New York City costs more than 2.25 times the national average; hence, an income of $23,850 only buys $10,600 worth of goods in New York City.

4. The latest cut will leave even less on the table for families, especially larger households with children, elderly or disabled family members.

5. The Food Bank for New York City reported that, following the SNAP cut three months ago, almost half of the City’s food banks and soup kitchens ran out of food, or particular types of food.

6. Administering the reduced SNAP program will become even more onerous for the Human Resources Administration, the NYC agency that already struggles to issue benefits in a timely manner to eligible individuals and families in need.

7. In addition to reducing ongoing benefits to needy families, the change will likely restrict access to emergency food stamp benefits for NYC households.

8. According to a report just released by the Community Service Society, from 2002 to 2011, New York City lost nearly 40% of the total number of apartments affordable to low-income families, with rent now accounting for two-thirds of income, on average, for poor New Yorkers who do not live in subsidized housing. Fewer resources for food cannot be made up elsewhere in a poor family’s budget.

9. Poor nutrition spawns a host of problems for the poor including limited educational achievement, unemployment, and chronic physical and mental illnesses.

10. SNAP cuts have a negative impact on the City’s economy. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that each SNAP dollar spent generates nearly twice that amount in local economic activity that supports small businesses like grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

There are those who say the farm bill is a rare bipartisan success because, after four years, lawmakers were able to balance competing interests and compromise to get the bill passed. I don’t see it that way. The multibillion-dollar agribusiness made some concessions, but it gained much in return. We cannot say the same for the hungry children of New York. It is not a compromise when poor families have less food on the table. It’s a travesty.

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

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Good Ideas Made Better

“Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” -President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

“Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” -President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

President Obama’s State of the Union Address outlined several measures being undertaken at the executive and state levels that aim to improve the lives of struggling Americans. These initiatives are limited in their impact, but they do have the potential to help more people – if the principles behind them are applied more broadly. Here is my takeaway of five “good” ideas that could be made “better.”

1. Minimum Wage
Thousands of employees and their families will benefit from the President’s executive order mandating an increase in the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10. However, his plan will cover only those individuals employed under future government contracts. At the same time, many states and municipalities, including New York, are also taking steps to increase their minimum wages.

Better: If the federal minimum wage were raised across the entire country, millions of low-income people would be able to earn a “living wage,” and we would be a step closer to the time, as Mr. Obama said, when no fulltime worker would have to raise a family in poverty.

2. Early Education
Thirty states have already expanded funding for public Pre-K programs, including New York. This early advantage levels the playing field for poor and disadvantaged students, building a foundation for success throughout the course of their education.

Better: Every child in every state deserves the same access to pre-kindergarten classes. Pre-K has been shown to increase a child’s chances of completing post-secondary education, improving earning potential and enabling kids to break deep-rooted cycles of multigenerational poverty.

3. Tax Credits
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been a boon to poor working families with children, including many NYLAG clients, since it was enacted in 1975. This law encourages employment, strengthens credit, and helps low-wage earners make ends meet.

Better: Expanding the EITC to include childless low-wage workers would help raise the income of more of our poorest workers, and provide an incentive to stay on the job, reducing unemployment.

4. Student Debt
Many federal student loans are currently eligible for Income-Based Repayment plans to help reduce monthly payments and make student loan debt more manageable for out-of-work and low-income individuals. The President described efforts to “shake up our system of higher education … so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.”

Better: At NYLAG we have seen firsthand the devastating effects of overwhelming student debt on the lives of our clients – including those victimized by some for-profits schools that promise an education but only deliver crushing debt. Tougher federal oversight and regulation would help protect vulnerable, low-income students from these predatory practices.

5. Immigration Reform
 Several states have taken local action on immigration reform, passing legislation that facilitates college attendance. New Jersey, for example, just passed legislation making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates. Several states, including California and Texas, have gone a step further by granting financial aid to qualifying students who aren’t legal residents, and similar bills are progressing in New York and other states.

Better: NYLAG has worked with immigrants of every status for almost 20 years, battling the complexity, capriciousness, and inequities of our country’s immigration policies. There is bipartisan support for enacting comprehensive immigration reform. It’s time to fix a broken system that holds back our economy, victimizes the innocent, breaks up families, and keeps millions of hardworking people living in the shadows. The President is right. Let’s get this done.

The business of government is inevitably a business of compromise, and it would be unrealistic – in any era – to expect to see the wholesale adoption of so many sweeping domestic policy changes. But, by examining the greater good we could accomplish through enacting these types of broad measures, I draw inspiration for the fight to make justice a reality for the vulnerable, poor and voiceless.

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

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The War Goes On

Where is opportunity in America?

This report outlines how the Opportunity Index works.

2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s War on Poverty, proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address in 1964. At the time, with 19% of the US population living at or below the poverty level, the Administration introduced a number of federally funded safety-net programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps, which to this day sustain and support the neediest in our nation.

Our current poverty rate of 15% may be a slight improvement over 1964, but it is also well above the nation’s low of 11% in 1973. In addition, the very nature of poverty has changed, becoming a legacy that is passed down from one generation to the next. The New York Times recently ran a series, The Invisible Child, about a young girl living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood who, along with her siblings, represents the third-generation in her family to be trapped in the same community, and the same abject poverty. Does this mean, after 50 years of battling, we have lost the war? I don’t think so – but we do need to rethink our war plans and adapt the weapons we use, if we are to fight this new brand of poverty. A lingering recession, growing income equality, and other factors, such as increasing natural disasters, are all challenges that must be addressed with new approaches.

The key factors determining Opportunity Index scores are Economy, Education and Community.

The key factors determining Opportunity Index scores are Economy, Education and Community.

One organization with some interesting ideas is Opportunity Nation, a consortium of 275 nonprofit, community and business organizations across the US that believes: “The places where people live are pivotal to the opportunities open to them. Some communities have characteristics that open many windows of opportunity for their residents; others do not.” In October, the group issued its third annual Opportunity Index, which ranks the 50 states based on a series of interconnected economic, educational and civic indicators that influence the ability of poor and low-income people to lift themselves out of poverty. Are there good jobs? Do most young people graduate from high school on time? Are people actively engaged and involved in their own communities?

I took a look at how New York State fared in the latest Index. Our State ranked #20, with an “opportunity score” of 54.6. [Vermont ranked #1 with a score of 65.9, while Nevada came in last with a score of 37.9.] If New York aspires to improve its ratings, we have work to do. Sixteen percent of New Yorkers live below the poverty line, a rate higher than the national average and far above Vermont’s 11.5%. Even more troubling, 14.4% of New York’s youth aged 16-24 years are not in school and not working, as compared to 8.6% in Vermont. The national data shows there is a close correlation between the percentage of those living in poverty and the number of “disconnected” young people who drop out of school and cannot find or hold a job.

According to the Opportunity Index, New York State has a 54.6 Opportunity Score.

According to the Opportunity Index, New York State has a 54.6 Opportunity Score.

The correlation between poverty and education was also highlighted in another recent study, the 2013 Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, which was established by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to combat the “crisis of the unrepresented.” Similar to the Opportunity Index, this report casts a wide net by identifying the areas of greatest need for civil legal services, and making recommendations for the resources necessary to address them. This year, the taskforce presented compelling evidence that poor New Yorkers need help if they are to transcend their circumstances and improve their lives. This includes access to “the essentials of life:” health care, education, subsistence income, housing, and stable family situations.

The report includes testimonies from scores of civic, government and business leaders. One in particular struck me – that given by Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. Her words put a human face on the data linking poverty, educational opportunities, and the benefits of civil legal services:

“From an educator’s perspective, I can tell you that the consequences of the unmet civil legal needs of New York’s families are far-reaching and devastating for our students… these problems impact their ability to learn and, in some cases, their ability or desire to attend school. We need to make sure that all students and their parents or caregivers are able to fully engage in and benefit from their educational experience””including those whose families are facing eviction or foreclosure, those who lack access to needed health services, and those whose families struggle with domestic violence and addiction””all of whom could be helped with the provision of legal services.”

The Opportunity Index and Judge Lippman’s nationally recognized model for action are two examples of the kind of innovation and energy needed to address today’s intractable brand of poverty – and overcome a Congress seemingly determined to erode the availability of the effective safety-net programs established long ago. As we enter 2014, I am looking back to Lyndon Johnson’s famous words, and am making a New Year’s resolution to do whatever I can to wage my own “unconditional war” against poverty.

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

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The Unconquerable Nelson Mandela

MandelaToday the world commemorates and honors the life of Nelson Mandela. Since his death last week, I have been thinking about his impact on our world. What kind of man could endure what he endured and live a life of such goodness and stature? Despite unimaginable suffering, he led the people of South Africa out of the darkness of apartheid and into the light of freedom. In reading about and remembering his life, I am struck by what a man of contrasts he was: at once confident and conciliatory, aggressive and humble, moderate and progressive.

He did not hate: Even as a black man in a nation of apartheid, he refused to hate whites, believing that a leader cannot afford to let hatred get in the way of results.

He was not afraid of controversy: He was proud that the translation of his given tribal name was “troublemaker,” and often upset members of his own party by taking a stand they did not support.

He fought injustice wherever he found it: Speaking at the trial that led to his 27-year imprisonment he said, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.”

He used humor to his advantage: He referred to his prison guards as “my guard of honor.” They were amazed and amused, and eventually tempered their harsh treatment of him.

He promoted compromise and clemency: Perhaps there is no greater example of this than his effort to balance justice and forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he devised to provide amnesty to those who admitted their crimes during the apartheid era.

He used his bully pulpit judiciously: In 2007 he gave an interview in which he was critical of the man who succeeded him as President of South Africa, but he would not permit its publication until after his death. (It was published just last week.)

He believed in collective wisdom: Many credit the African National Congress party’s success under his leadership to the fact that he listened to, and took ideas, from all sides.

For all his confidence, he knew his faults and acknowledged them: He once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

He sought to know his adversaries – as a source of power and understanding: He learned Afrikaans, the language spoken by the white population in South Africa. And, it was he who initiated, while still in prison, negotiations with the white government that led to the end of apartheid.

As I join with people across the globe in paying tribute to his legacy, it seems to me that this flexible approach to life and to leadership enabled Mr. Mandela to achieve greatness, while still remaining – to paraphrase a line from the poem he kept on his prison cell wall – “the captain of his unconquerable soul.”

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

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They Shouldn’t Have to Fight Their Own Legal Battles Too

American FlagToday is Veterans Day, a ritual day of thanks to honor the women and men who have served in the US armed forces. I think it is also a day to acknowledge the toll that military service takes on those who serve – and to identify solutions that can help ease their burdens.

The life of an enlisted person returning home is uniquely complicated. Returning veterans face enormous obstacles to maintaining their quality of life and achieving economic stability. Despite the number of existing safety net and supportive services out there, many former servicemen and women are falling through the cracks. For example, veterans are still 50 percent more likely to become homeless due to poverty than other Americans.The unemployment rate among veterans is three percent higher than the rest of the country’s population. Those with mental or physical health problems are even more likely to be homeless or unemployed; many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, leading to an alarming increase in the suicide rate of those returning from recent conflicts.

Sick or disabled veterans require specialized support to navigate the complex web of courts and government agencies in order to obtain the benefits and services to which they are entitled – and they know it. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (in a survey they have been conducting since 1994) access to legal assistance is one of the top three unmet needs cited every year by the veterans surveyed.

At NYLAG, we see it everyday on the faces of the vets we work with in New York City. For the last year, our LegalHealth Unit has been addressing the needs of veterans at two New York City Veterans Administration hospitals where we provide free civil legal services. Through a medical-legal partnership similar to those we have with 18 other City hospitals, our onsite attorney is integrated into the patients’ medical care team to address non-medical problems such as housing, social security disability and other public benefits issues, discharge upgrades, family law issues, and advance planning. The demand for our services has been staggering: in one year our dedicated attorney has handled 884 legal matters for 572 veteran clients. That is nearly three times the number of matters an attorney typically handles in other settings. We’ve prevented evictions, secured appropriate government assistance, improved housing conditions, and provided a whole host of other services to stabilize the lives of our clients.

Our VA hospital experience is dramatic proof that these types of medical-legal partnerships work. They help sick and disabled veterans overcome complex and daunting bureaucracies, connecting them to solutions that improve their health and well-being. The model should become the norm at VA hospitals across the country. Our nation’s veterans have done enough – they shouldn’t have to fight their own legal battles too.

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

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When I Think About Sandy

Hurricane SandyA year ago today, the forces of nature conspired against New York. The coincidence of a deadly storm surge, and astronomical high tides resulted in the disaster we now call Superstorm Sandy. The storm killed 181 people, displaced tens of thousands of New Yorkers and caused more than $50 billion in damages. It was so unprecedented that the National Weather Service retired the name Sandy: it will never be used again.

For NYLAG, and for me personally, the last year has been a time of hope and a time of heartbreak, a time of achievement and a time of struggling to do more, a time of learning and a time of sharing what has been learned.

To date NYLAG has provided free civil legal services to over 5,800 low-income storm victims, helping them with a tangle of legal issues exacerbated by public bureaucracies and private for-profit interests. Along the way, we learned a good deal about what makes a coordinated disaster response work, or not work so well.

First of all it is important to be prepared as an organization. I don’t just mean having an emergency response plan for your own operations, I mean having processes and procedures in place that will ensure that substantive disaster support gets to affected communities right away. And these procedures cannot just be in a binder gathering dust on a shelf, they need to be robust and kept current. For providers of civil legal services this means a serious level of commitment in order to be prepared to act immediately. For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced with Sandy was getting up to speed in unfamiliar legal areas, specifically insurance law where we had no in-house expertise. We were lucky to receive pro bono training, but in the future I will make sure that we keep current with disaster law, and track changes in regulations and procedures governing public agencies and private entities that come into play when disaster strikes.

There needs to be far better communication between federal agencies, state and local government, community-based organizations and civil legal service providers like NYLAG. The moment that the President declares a disaster area should be the trigger for rolling out a coordinated plan. For example, it is not enough to have FEMA and SBA onsite in community centers. They need to be trained as problem solvers and not slow down the process, as they did after Sandy. I also think the federal government might learn from some of the innovations introduced at the state or local level, such as New York State’s mediation program for homeowners’ insurance claims. A joint mediation program for both homeowners’ and flood insurance (which is a federal program) would be far more efficient and effective for everyone.

One other takeaway from our Sandy experience: all disasters are not created equal. Every city, every community, is unique – and a standard template is just not going to work. New York is a diverse community. Our population speaks scores of languages. We have particular needs regarding our large immigrant population. There are high volumes of both homeowners and renters with very different needs. New York City is one of the most expensive places to live in the world: plywood at the local Home Depot costs more than plywood in Boulder, Colorado. All of these factors need to be considered before a disaster strikes if we are to improve the nation’s disaster response capabilities.

I have an image that has stayed with me now for a year. I remember watching news coverage right after the storm. A woman from Staten Island was standing in the muddy ruins of her home, picking through rubble, her whole body signaling defeat. Then she looked right at the camera – at me in my living room, and said, “I just want to go home.”

More than anything else, when I think about Sandy, I think about that woman and the thousands more for whom the storm is not over, and may never be. We owe it to them to make the system work.

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

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