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 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.
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.”ARLENA MYERS-MICHEL
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.
“They treated us with professionalism and dignity from the beginning. They listened and empathized with us.”ARLENA MYERS-MICHEL