ALPENA – Lawyers in Northeast Michigan’s poorest corner make life better for everyone in the area, Michigan legal aid activists say.
A study released this week by the state’s Public Law Commission says that the state-sponsored legal aid system — free legal aid for people facing illegal eviction, the foreclosures, domestic violence, wrongful denial of government assistance, and other civil law challenges – financial benefits as well. the communities in which those people live.
A junior caseworker in the Department of Justice’s Alpena North Michigan office, serving four counties in Northeast Michigan.
Two attorneys are responsible for more than 12,500 clients who meet the poverty guidelines, according to the 2020 census, said Mary Kavanaugh-Gahn, deputy director of Legal Services of Northern Michigan. including northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
Last year, the agency opened 179 cases, and this year it says it will handle 217 cases, with many more turned away due to insufficient hands to handle larger cases. .
“We will never be able to meet everyone’s needs,” Kavanaugh-Gahn said. “But we’ll do what we can.”
Most residents don’t pay much attention to the Justice Department office, which is located on the quiet side of one of Alpena’s downtown business blocks – and that’s for the best, because the Office workers bring in other clients, Kavanaugh-Gahn said.
For every pending case, the agency’s attorneys must turn to the other four, he said.
Last year, the district gained one legal aid attorney but lost three.
“We’ve always been under water, and we’re more under water now,” Kavanaugh-Gahn said, citing a long list of situations in which the agency will provide the legal assistance they can. .
Unlike the Northeast Michigan District Attorney’s Office, which represents indigent people accused of crime, Legal Services attorneys fight for people who face the court system because of civil case.
While social service agencies help people overcome their challenges and get back on their feet, a lawyer can make a huge difference in a person’s ability to achieve results for the long time they need it – and a good outcome for society, according to Kavanaugh-Gahn.
A Justice for All Commission report, released Monday, found that legal aid services provide $6.69 in long-term financial benefits for every $1 invested in federal legal aid.
Legal aid agencies help those who cannot pay the legal fees to stay in housing, keep their government benefits, avoid fraud, and have access to health care, and having a stronger family.
That help means less community spending on community health care costs, support costs for homeless and troubled families, law enforcement and court systems, and other costs. support, the study showed.
After a push for consolidation in the country’s many legal service regions in the early 2000s, with many states filling rural and urban counties with legal aid services, the the northern Michigan service area of the state’s rural legal aid program, Kavanaugh – Gahn said.
The separation from the big cities is important, because the attention and money will go to places where people can see the need, Kavanaugh-Gahn said.
Big cities have many gaps between poverty and financial stability, and people suffering from homelessness or other effects of financial struggle are easy to see, he said. each.
Rural areas have a different pattern of poverty, he said.
People who don’t have enough money to save may not have the transportation to go to the required court in another city. There may be no child care to get a job to improve their situation and pay court fines.
Remote homes and limited public transportation in rural areas, along with a dearth of affordable housing and little money to fund support systems, exacerbate these challenges, Kavanaugh said. Gahn.
If an abusive partner takes the car and the money and leaves for a few days, no one is around to see the spouse and children left in the Up North car park, there is no place to go, he said.
“Everyone is scattered,” he said. “That trailer is in the middle of nowhere.”
Understanding the challenges of rural poverty helps Legal Services Attorneys provide the best possible fight for their clients, sometimes in the language their clients want to speak. to the other side and find practical solutions, Kavanaugh-Gahn said.
At the Alpena office, the small staff handles a lot of the workload, but the staff takes on the cases they can, he said.
“We’re dedicated to the job,” Kavanaugh-Gahn said, “and we’re really trying to help people who can’t help themselves.”