In March 2020, MVLS was gearing up for our signature event, A Taste for Pro Bono, ramping up trainings for volunteers, and conducting extensive outreach to help clients prepare for the upcoming spring tax sale season. Over a short weekend in March, MVLS transitioned to remote work for our entire staff and cancelled all of our spring in-person events.
Despite these significant challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis, the very first question we asked ourselves is what do we need to do to reach those in need and suffering from the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19? Since unaddressed legal needs can create further destabilization in our communities, we continued to provide the critical services that MVLS has provided for nearly 40 years while identifying new and innovative methods to reach potential clients.
MVLS has achieved major victories for our clients this past fiscal year and in the past few months. MVLS’ staff attorneys and volunteers were able to provide services for 4,607 cases with issues ranging from custody disputes to risk of foreclosure to income tax controversy. MVLS has been a leader in navigating challenging financial issues during the pandemic, while we couldn’t meet in person with clients or attend court hearings, we knew we could help clients prepare for the legal issues they could face in the near future. With no reduction in services, our staff worked from home to provide our constant level of service, while augmenting our work to focus on specific barriers created by the pandemic including demystifying the confusing timelines and ever-changing information for foreclosure, tax sale, evictions, and debt collection with our clients.
Securing Critical Funds for Marylanders in Need
At a time of unprecedented unemployment, substantial financial insecurity, and rent and mortgage bills loomed. There were no funds coming in for many households and we understand that the $600 per person and $500 per dependent child available through the CARES Act were critical to families trying to meet their most basic needs. The Economic impact Payments (EIP), also known as the tax stimulus checks, arrived quickly for many individuals who regularly filed taxes. However, it left out thousands of Marylanders who aren’t required to file taxes because of their low level of income and those who had to proactively file tax information to receive their stimulus payment. Those receiving pubic benefits, including social security retirement, disability, veteran’s benefits and others, also experienced problems receiving the full amount they were entitled to. Even those who successfully received the payment often threw it away when the card arrived in the mail which had no identifying details connecting it to EIP.
MVLS recognized how critically important these funds were and no other organization in Maryland was positioned to be the leader in providing reliable, up-to-date information on a process that was changed nearly daily and often included very short response timelines. MVLS provided educational materials to a broad swath of community partners, governmental agencies, the media, and direct assistance to those trying to navigate the filing requirements to receive their funds. This was critically important since the IRS itself was shut down for months during the pandemic. We launched the only Tax Hotline in Maryland to answer questions about these payments, and further re-envisioned our Low-Income Tax Controversy program (LITC) to help clients file tax returns to get these critical payments.
Ensuring Families Stay in Their Homes
Due to the gathering restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis and recognizing that keeping families in their homes was more important than ever, MVLS transitioned our quarterly My Home, My Deed, My Legacy campaign clinic to operate virtually. This clinic primarily serves older adults in Baltimore City, many of whom have very limited access to technology. The clinic provides these older adults with critical information about whether there are any issues with the deeds to their homes and advice about estate planning. As with all MVLS clinics, the focus remains on full representation. The clients are placed either with their staff attorney or another pro bono attorney to fully resolve any estate or deed matters. With this work, MVLS is able to help secure critically important benefits for these homeowners to ensure they will be able to stay in their house, and create an affordable and smooth transition to pass, what is often their only asset, their home to the next generation. While creating multi-generational housing stability and paths to wealth-building is always critically important, in this moment when Black older adults, are at most risk of COVID-related illness and death, our staff and volunteers have helped ensure that their wishes are followed and they are set up to pass their homes on to their family.
At MVLS, we pride ourselves on being able to be nimble, responding quickly and comprehensively to the needs of the communities we serve, the COVID-19 crisis put our ability to shift how we do what we do to the test and we responded. MVLS was able to transition several of our clinics to fully remote models. MVLS launched “TDAP,” a telephonic version of the popular Debtor’s Assistance Program previously held in person at the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts in Baltimore and Greenbelt, through which volunteer attorneys provide free bankruptcy consultations to clients facing economic hardships. This project took significant coordination between MVLS and the bankruptcy court and has received positive feedback from both volunteers and clients.
MVLS also transitioned its ongoing tax clinic with Helping Up Mission (HUM) to a remote model. Many clients feel most comfortable accessing legal services through a connection from a program they are familiar with, like HUM. While working remotely, our paralegal staff continued to connect with clients in need, matching them with volunteer attorneys around the state. Not for one day since the start of the pandemic has MVLS missed this critical part of our work. Community outreach also continued with telephone and video calls with a variety of community partners with MVLS attorneys and outreach staff providing critical updates on the evolving landscape of legal issues. MVLS is grateful to all of our volunteers who have taken a case and have helped ensure access to justice is available to MVLS clients.
Securing a Fresh Start for Survivors of Human Trafficking
Since 2017, MVLS’ Human Trafficking Prevention Program (HTPP) has fought for the rights of our clients, many of whom have endured horrific experiences of exploitation and abuse. These clients often come to MVLS with significant criminal records involving prostitution, drugs charges, and other offenses. In order to re-enter the workforce, get access to public housing and other benefits, they must have clean records. The True Freedom Act, passed in the 2020 Maryland General Assembly, can give HTPP clients a fresh start. The True Freedom Act provides a vastly expanded vacatur law, which allows clients greater ability to remove charges from their records relating to the time when they were trafficked. MVLS worked with our project partner, the University of Baltimore School of Law, to advocate for this change, and when passed we provided a training for volunteer attorneys on the new remedies available under this Act, which went into effect on June 1, 2020. Additionally, with the support from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice new outreach materials and HTPP website was created to better reach clients who are at risk of trafficking. This population can be particularly hard to reach, and this new outreach campaign, created with client and stakeholder input, will allow MVLS to better reach and serve these survivors and community partners.
The Road Ahead and How You Can Help
MVLS has taken great strides to ensure our clients have access to vital legal services, now more than ever. While the future remains uncertain, we do know that Marylanders facing economic hardships and Black families have suffered disproportionately when it comes to job loss and economic insecurity in the face of the pandemic crisis. This unemployment or underemployment will almost certainly lead to a tsunami of evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcies and debt collection cases in the coming year. MVLS is preparing for this fallout by increasing fundraising efforts, volunteer recruitment, and educating our community partners. What lies ahead is daunting for all of us, and those with the least available resources are most at risk. While MVLS stands ready to respond, we hope you will continue to support our efforts through your financial support and volunteering to help MVLS clients.