The COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve and is having a devastating impact on the lives of people around the world. At Legal Aid, we believe it is our role and responsibility during this time to prioritize protecting the health and well-being of our staff, volunteers, and visitors while providing the highest level of service to our clients possible and zealously advocating for the needs of our client community.
This has been a tough balancing act. But I have two pieces of positive news to share with you – in the midst of all of the fear and sadness.
First, following advocacy by Legal Aid and others, late Friday night, the DC Courts announced they will suspend all evictions and foreclosures in the District in light of the crisis. At least temporarily, DC residents do not need to worry about losing their homes.
Second, also late Friday, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminarily injunction (order here, opinion here) that will stop the Trump Administration from implementing a rule change regarding work requirements for SNAP (food stamps) recipients, in a case brought by Legal Aid and several state attorneys general. The new rule was set to go into effect on April 1 and would have kicked nearly 700,000 Americans off food stamps. As recently as Thursday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had indicated that the Administration had no plans to delay the rule change notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court’s decision, while only temporary, will still ensure that more than 13,000 DC residents do not lose their food stamps unnecessarily. Forgive me for quoting myself from the New York Times, but the point stands: Implementation of this rule will not increase the employment rate among SNAP beneficiaries. But it will most definitely increase hunger.
For obvious reasons, obtaining this injunction is a huge relief. But we are still worried about the impact of COVID-19, and the ramifications are likely to be most serious for the tens of thousands of DC residents who struggle to make ends meet. Our concerns include reduced hours and job losses for low-income workers; access to healthcare and other government services; increased food insecurity; and the dangers of increased domestic violence as people are quarantined for long periods of time.
Legal Aid is implementing a multi-faceted response.
Zealously Advocating for The Needs of our Client Community
Given the nature of the challenge facing the District and its most vulnerable residents, we believe a strong, targeted response from the District government and courts is warranted. We are in close communication with the DC Council, the DC Courts, our partner organizations, and even opposing counsel to advocate for several measures that could mitigate the impact of the outbreak. These include removing barriers to healthcare, putting a temporary halt to evictions and foreclosures, suspending utility shut-offs, and providing wage replacement for DC workers who miss work because of the pandemic.
The DC Council is currently moving a bill through the legislative process, the COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020, which would address most of these concerns, and we are appreciative of the Council’s efforts to anticipate and address some of the worst effects of this pandemic for District residents.
As for the Courts, we are still awaiting more guidance from them Sunday – right now our lawyers are still poised to go to landlord-tenant court Monday morning – but it is heartening that the Courts and the US Marshal have suspended all evictions and foreclosures. We will stay in close communication with the Court as it balances important public safety needs with the desire to help reduce the spread of the virus.
Providing the Highest Level of Service to Our Clients Possible
Legal Aid’s client community will continue to rely on us for the legal assistance they need in the coming weeks and months. We will continue to represent our clients in and out of court, and be available to DC residents who need us. One particular area of concern for us will be domestic violence, as incidents of domestic violence can increase in times of economic crisis, and reports of domestic violence allegedly tripled in Hubei, China after the COVID-19 quarantine began.
Protecting the Health and Well-Being of our Staff, Volunteers, and Visitors
More than 5,000 people come to Legal Aid each year seeking legal assistance. In order to protect our staff, volunteers, and clients, our Northwest and Southeast offices will be closed to the public until further notice. We are encouraging DC residents seeking legal assistance to utilize our phone and online client intake services. We have many lawyers and legal assistants available to conduct these intakes. If you or someone you know needs help, they can call us at (202) 628-1161 or visit https://www.legalaiddc.org/online-intake/.
Servant of Justice Awards Dinner
I also wanted to include a note about our 31st Annual Servant of Justice Awards Dinner, which is currently scheduled for April 22. We have announced John Heintz of Blank Rome and Avis Buchanan of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia as our Servant of Justice honorees and were so looking forward to honoring them – and talking about our cause – at this year’s Dinner. Law firms, corporate supporters, and individuals have already come together to commit more than $1.4 million to Legal Aid, and you can see all our sponsors on our website here. We are so appreciative of the support we have already received.
We are monitoring the situation carefully. Based on the information we have today, we would not be at all surprised if large group gatherings will either be prohibited or discouraged through the end of April, and if that is the case, we will of course not go forward with the Dinner on that date. We will update our supporters and sponsors as we have additional information. Your support for us – and our client community – is so greatly appreciated during this time.