A Year of Tragedy and Violence

Dear Friends of Legal Aid:

2020 has been a trying year for all of us. But it has been particularly horrific for many of our Black friends and neighbors. COVID-19 has killed Black Americans at a higher rate than any other group, and the murders of George Floyd and many others at the hands of police has once again demonstrated the impact of state violence on Black lives. Perhaps this should come as no surprise in a nation that has so systematically violated the rights of Black Americans over the years – through incarceration, eviction, police brutality, the denial of equal education and healthcare, and the indignity of personal discrimination – but the fact that it is not surprising makes it no less unjust.

When the pandemic reached the District earlier this year, our client community was hit the hardest. Well over 95% of the clients Legal Aid serves are Black or people of color. Nearly 90% of the DC residents who died of COVID-19 so far are Black (74%) or Hispanic (13%). And as stay-at-home orders were issued and schools and work places shut down across the city, our neighbors struggled to both stay safe and make ends meet. Unemployment claims skyrocketed, domestic violence surged, and housing and food insecurity rose sharply. Requests for legal help to Legal Aid increased dramatically this year. Never has Legal Aid faced such profound challenges.  

That is why I am extraordinarily proud, and extraordinarily humbled, by the work our staff has done this year, and by the unprecedented support of thousands of people and organizations for our work.

Legal Aid attorneys helped stop the Trump Administration from kicking 700,000 Americans off food stamps; helped shape pandemic relief legislation at the DC Council that will prevent evictions and foreclosures in the District until March 2021 (and defended that moratorium against a relentless attack by DC landlords); helped work with the Courts to ensure that litigants had fair and safe access; and helped thousands of individual clients get their unemployment benefits, reunite with their children, reach safety from domestic violence, keep their homes, and so much more. Legal Aid staff often did this at great personal sacrifice, adjusting to remote work while caring for their own children and loved ones.

Nicole Dooley, Staff Attorney in our Public Benefits Law Unit, who worked on our case that helped vacate a Trump Administration rule that would have kicked 700,000 Americans off food stamps.

And just as they have for decades, Legal Aid’s client community made their own voices heard, in and out of court, whether it was our newly formed Community Advisory Council advocating at the DC Council, or clients bringing their stories to MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

It was your support in this time of crisis, when so many organizations were forced to cut back, that enabled Legal Aid to expand our impact.

All told, hundreds of thousands of DC residents and Americans nationwide benefited this year because of your generosity and we are proud to be able to share in this report the result of this work alongside the stories of individual clients, whose lives you touched.


David Dantzic
President, Board of Trustees
Latham & Watkins

Eric Angel
Executive Director
Legal Aid

P.S. We are so appreciative for our clients who, after fighting difficult legal challenges, agreed to be photographed for this report. All photography occurred outside and was done in a socially-distant manner. In addition, we are grateful to Alison DeSilva, who contributed her outstanding photography pro bono to this virtual annual report.

The COVID Divide

Even before the pandemic, the District was home to some of the worst racial and income disparities in the nation. Deep-rooted institutional racism has meant that Black residents consistently make up the largest share of residents living in poverty in the District. And though median household income in DC has steadily increased over the past decade for white households, the median income for Black households did not.

These substantial racial, wealth, and health disparities in the District have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Residents of color – who make up the majority of our client community – have been disproportionately impacted as they are more likely to have underlying health conditions, more likely to have essential jobs that do not allow them to work from home, and less likely to have access to essential resources (such as food, child care, and safe housing).

To date, the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths among Black and Hispanic/Latino DC residents far outnumber those of non-Hispanic white residents. Looking at where the majority of Legal Aid clients live, the number of infections and deaths in Wards 7 and 8 – which have the highest concentration of poverty in the District and where more than 90% of residents are Black – are also far higher than other wards. The increase in inquiries for help that Legal Aid has fielded this year is evidence of this disproportionate impact.

Clients like Cynthia Spencer, who lost her job at the start of the pandemic and struggled to obtain Unemployment benefits; Denise Humphries, a single mother of three who, since the pandemic, has not been able to make over-time pay which she relied on to make ends meet; and Naomi and Julio Garcia (below) are just a few among the hundreds of Legal Aid clients who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. Their stories are shared throughout this report.

Naomi and Julio Garcia’s story shows how Legal Aid’s approach to representation helps families navigate multiple systems and overlapping legal issues in a time of crisis. Like so many others, Ms. Garcia and her son Julio were deeply impacted by the pandemic. When Julio lost his job, Ms. Garcia, who participates in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (a rental assistance program that subsidizes the rent of lower-income families), was entitled to a rent adjustment which reflected the loss in the family’s income. Despite persistent efforts to report the income loss to the DC Housing Authority (DCHA), the Garcias got no response.

Legal Aid Housing Attorney Eleni Christidis was able to obtain complete retroactive relief for the Garcia family. Then Eleni and Skadden Loaned Associate Jim Perry also assisted Julio with his unemployment claim. Drawing on the teamwork and expertise of their colleagues in Legal Aid’s Housing Law and Public Benefits Units, Eleni and Jim were able to make sure the Garcia family obtained the full benefits to which they were entitled and preserve their affordable housing.

*Names changed for confidentiality

Responding to the Pandemic

When the public health emergency was declared in the District, Legal Aid immediately leapt into action. In addition to the threat of COVID-19 itself, we knew that our client community would be hit hardest in other ways. We knew that access to healthcare, income support, and the preservation of housing, wages, and assets would be vital to an equitable recovery for low-income residents and residents of color. Our goal: to help mitigate the pandemic’s impact on our most vulnerable neighbors.

  • Even before a public health emergency was declared in DC in mid-March, Legal Aid worked behind the scenes with the U.S. Marshalls, DC Superior Court, and the DC Council to halt evictions in the District, and to stay all non-emergency hearings.
  • Starting on March 16, we transitioned our entire program to remote work, ensuring that we could respond to individuals in need of legal assistance while protecting the safety of our clients, staff, and volunteers. We also created several new hotlines to provide legal advice across our practice areas, including for tenants unsure what would happen to them if they could no longer pay rent.
  • We helped shape several progressively more aggressive emergency relief bills in DC that expanded access to healthcare, provided new unemployment benefits programs targeting those previously ineligible for unemployment benefits, strengthened moratoria on evictions, foreclosure, and debt collection actions, and more.
  • We stayed in close contact with current and former clients throughout the pandemic, both to address new and continuing legal issues, and to help them access new benefits programs, including federal stimulus funds that were predictably most difficult to access for Americans who needed them most.
Legal Aid shut down our Anacostia, Courthouse, and Northwest offices on Friday, March 13. By Monday morning, we had transitioned to fully remote, available to assist clients by phone and online.

Legal Aid worked closely with the DC Council, the DC Courts, partner organizations, and our own Community Advisory Council to address these issues. Early on, we successfully advocated for the suspension of all evictions and foreclosures in the District; increased access to healthcare for immigrants through the DC Healthcare Alliance program; and won an injunction (along with several state attorneys general) that ensured that nearly 700,000 Americans would not lose their food stamps.

Though the pandemic has made reaching the communities we serve exponentially more difficult, ensuring that our services remain accessible to the District’s underserved communities was of the utmost importance. In addition to our policy and systemic advocacy efforts, Legal Aid made use of our phone and online intake services, and established new practice-specific hotlines to ensure new clients could reach us. We also worked hard to disseminate accurate information, share critical resources, help clients access safety-net benefits, and provide ongoing targeted legal assistance to existing clients, like Cristina Myers-Michel.

Cristina Myers-Michel

Cristina Myers-Michel, outside her Washington DC home. She survived cancer, but faced over $6,000 in medical bills when the District failed to screen her for health coverage.

In December 2019, we began working with Cristina Myers-Michel, who had been trying to apply for critical health coverage through the District government. Without this health coverage, Ms. Myers-Michel was unable to pay for the health costs not covered by her Medicare coverage (which only pays 80% of doctor’s visits and has other restrictions).

The District government was supposed to act on its own to screen Ms. Myers-Michel for this health coverage. However, the District failed to do so, and, despite extensive efforts by Ms. Myers-Michel and her daughter Arlena over the course of many months, Ms. Myers-Michel was still not fully insured when she came to Legal Aid. This was particularly devastating for Ms. Myers-Michel, who had recently lost her husband to illness, and who herself was undergoing chemotherapy to treat a cancer diagnosis. As a result of the District’s failure to provide the needed health coverage, she was incurring thousands of dollars in medical bills to obtain the needed treatment for her cancer. She had even had to miss rounds of chemotherapy treatment due to the exorbitant cost.

“During these unprecedented and difficult times, this non-profit organization took up my mother’s case in early January of 2020 and did not give up until it yielded a satisfactory result in September of 2020.”


After coming to Legal Aid, Ms. Myers-Michel began working with Public Benefits Attorney Chelsea Sharon and paralegal Lisa Meehan. Chelsea and Lisa were able to get Ms. Myers-Michel enrolled in both Medicaid and QMB.  When the pandemic hit, Chelsea represented Ms. Myers-Michel in a virtual hearing and secured this coverage retroactive to the date her Medicare had started. As a result, Ms. Myers-Michel’s thousands of dollars of debt was extinguished.

Ms. Myers-Michel (left) with her daughter Arlena and two granddaughters.

“They treated us with professionalism and dignity from the beginning. They listened and empathized with us.”



Supporters & Financials

More than 5,000 individuals and organizations supported Legal Aid’s work this year, including through a record-smashing Making Justice Real Campaign that raised nearly $3.1 million, and leadership support from the DC Bar Foundation (especially through the DC Council’s Access to Justice Grants Program and the Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program). Thank you to all who contributed!