This interview continues the Campbell Conversations’ autumn theme of poverty in the Syracuse region. The focus here is on access to civil legal representation. Tom Buckel is the regional managing attorney in the Utica office of the Legal Services Central New York. Deborah O’Shea is the pro-bono coordinator of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County.
Grant Reeher (GR): Can you give me a brief overview of the mission of your organization and the kind of work that it does?
Tom Buckel (TB): Legal services represents poor and near-poor people, up to 200 percent above the poverty line, in 13 counties. We provide legal support for people on housing, on insurance, education and consumer matters, a wide variety. Beyond that, we try to support the court system to try to relieve backlogs and make the system work better. Finally, we are also very engaged with dealing with the community’s systemic issues, beyond one person, that create hardship for families. If, for instance, a government entity is not administering a program properly, we will take that on. If there’s a civil rights violation that affects more than one person, we have the capacity to take those things on.
GR: Your organization has attorneys on staff, which you are one. Deborah, you have a different model.
Deborah O’Shea (DO): Volunteer Lawyers Project is predicated on all attorneys’ obligation to give back to the community. We utilize our private-practice attorneys to feed into those programs where we have found there is tremendous need in the community, and the legal services have not been able or don’t have enough staff attorneys to be able to take care of the need. The areas in Syracuse where the need is difficult to keep on top of has been in housing, eviction defense, family law with uncontested divorces, custody, support. We are also at certain locations that we have targeted as poor areas in the community, and anyone that walks in the door, no matter what their income level, will have the opportunity to sit down and talk to an attorney.
GR: Are there enough services for people in this category of income?
TB: There is not, but there is also not enough for the middle class, as well. There are several organizations to provide legal assistance to people in need. They are very similar but have very different visions and different expertise. There is collaborative spirit, but it is loose and sometimes competitive, because funding is tight and the needs are high.
GR: I would think that there would be some public suspicion involved in this work. Do poorer people who are having these problems view the legal establishment more suspiciously, and how do you get over it?
DO: I would say every single day when I leave that courtroom someone is throwing their arms around me and giving me a big hug. Just today, we had a case where it’s a family of five and we were able to make the judgment against them disappear, got them to the end of the month. They were all in tears; they were very upset with their landlord. I think the trust builds from the fact that we’re not there to tell them something that can’t happen. We’re there to tell them the truth, but we are also there to just kind of mediate whatever the emotions are, and that is worth a lot. We rarely have people that say no, and when I watch the cases that go through the regular courtroom procedure, the folks that say no get to the bench just get walloped by just their inability to understand how to represent themselves.
TB: It’s not a question of hostility or suspicion. It’s a feeling of powerlessness. And it’s not unique to someone who happens to be poor, although it is far more overwhelming because the people we deal with experience powerlessness in so many different settings, and not just the legal setting. Even eating can be a challenge. Our model is different. We are not on-the-spot (representation), we are more of a client-focused representation. At the same time, some type of social work help is about half of our job. The follow-up is really the important work.
GR: Is your sense of effectiveness limited by being faced with this huge array of problems that are manifesting themselves in this one legal issue?
TB: Because we have a broader charter, we are able to deal with the larger issues. On the education setting, if the attorney general had not taken up the issue of (school) suspensions, organizations like us would do that. So we have that capacity.
DO: As I am doing an intake, I ask questions, so I can have an idea about the dynamics of the family. Oftentimes, I’ll see before me manifestations of spousal abuse, so then I’m connecting that person to Vera House. I will see a grandmother that all of a sudden has been given or handed over to her grandchildren, because mom had to go to jail. So then I am sending that individual to our service core program to establish a guardianship, or depending on what is happening, custody. Our folks in our agency know what folks in the other agencies do. They really know how the whole community of these services interact and how we can direct people to the appropriate agency without having them go around and around and around and just knock on a lot of doors. It is multi-faceted. Every single eviction that happens, kids are being yanked out of a home, put into another home in the middle of an academic year, and whether or not it’s the same school — it probably isn’t — all of that has an impact.
GR: About the relationship between the legal vulnerabilities and the financial vulnerabilities — I would think that these people might be more easily pushed over the financial edge by a legal problem that someone with more resources might regard as a real problem, but not a crisis.
TB: We have to understand that being poor is more expensive than any other condition in life. Medical care costs more, transportation costs more, time costs more, education is more difficult. You are starting in a hole. Any one of these issues, any legal challenge, will make it worse.
DO: I could put a face to that. The housing stock in Syracuse is terrible. Folks move into an apartment and they pay the rent, but they are responsible for the utilities. So they are in a home that has no storm windows, has cracks in the doors, have windows that are broken. Their energy cost would be three or four times that of other people that are out there paying their utilities with nice, warm, tight houses. What I see happening in the winter time with tenants that are in apartments that they say the utilities are included, when it gets very cold in November, the landlords say the furnaces have broken down. “I’m going to give you these nice toasty little space heaters. They are going to keep you warm. I told you I would provide you with heat.” That is going to take their energy cost and quadruple it. So no one can ever catch up in these types of situations. Bed bugs are rampant in the city of Syracuse. People feel powerless to get rid of it. They have to literally throw away on the street all of their bedding, their couches. These are things that they paid good money to have. All of that gets put in the corner and you can never ever get ahead if you are constantly fighting with the system that puts you there.
GR: If you could add one thing to the legal system that the two of you are involved in here, what would it be?
DO: The city is trying to do its best to be able to hold landlords accountable for their apartments. I think that if we could try to make the housing stocks much more habitable, then a lot of those initial problems would kind of settle down.
TB: First, cash is obvious. The urban legend that people who are in the system or on public assistance are somehow living large and are scamming the rest of us — it’s just not the fact. It’s very limited and very difficult and very burdensome. And so cash is certainly important. Beyond that, we have been at this war on poverty for 50 years, and it continues, and the cycle continues to grind people up because of some of the reasons that Deborah talked about. But we (also) have a complete lack of financial understanding, a lack of any kind of understanding of how basic transactions work, how banking works, simple things that ought to be part of our school culture and are not.
GR: Has this experience changed your own views of the poor in any important ways?
TB: Completely. I thought I was enlightened before, and now I know I was not. It has made me more of an opponent of a system that is not working. We have a lot in place. We have a lot of resources, but today when we factor in the combination of education problems, the financial problems of the government to administer these programs, when we factor in the systemic barriers and low wages that people confront, it has made me far more passionate in a whole different way.
DO: I agree a thousand percent. That’s why I have such a great feeling of well-being having young people shadow me in court, because I want them to see folks that are in poverty, that are on public assistance. It is not a free ride. I want them to understand that there but by the grace of God, and here is why folks got themselves into these situations, and why. It is almost impossible to get out.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.