A San Francisco woman recently benefited from three programs at the same nonprofit partnering to stabilize her life. Holistic legal services are a trademark of the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) and “Emily’s” story is a good example of how they work.
Emily first came to JDC because her landlord wanted to evict her for behavior stemming from her physical and mental disabilities. Because Emily’s disabilities prevent her from working and she survives on Social Security Disability benefits, if she lost her housing, she could not afford to go anywhere else. Katie Danielson, Senior Supervising Attorney at the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), took Emily’s case. As part of her defense, Katie requested housing accommodations reasonable for Emily’s conditions from her landlord. Katie also explained the new conditions to Emily’s medical provider so treatment could be targeted to comply with them. As Emily’s condition stabilized, Katie negotiated an agreement with the landlord that allowed her to stay in her home.
Meanwhile, Emily was experiencing stalking behavior from two ex-partners. Katie called on the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic (CROC), which JDC fiscally sponsors and collaborates with deeply. There, Emberly Cross, longtime Coordinating Attorney, got domestic violence restraining orders to ensure Emily’s safety. Emily told Emberly many times how much she appreciated and trusted Katie at HAP, and how that enabled Emily to trust CROC when she may not have accessed its help otherwise.
When Emily presented a tax issue, Katie turned to her colleague Amy Spivey, who was then Supervising Attorney of JDC’s Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.* Emily had letters she did not understand, claiming she owed federal and state taxes for 2009 and tax returns for 2014. Katie accompanied Emily to multiple meetings with Amy to build trust and help explain background facts. Amy determined that Emily’s family had a life insurance policy for her. Emily had taken loans against it, in part to pay for in-patient rehabilitation, but accidentally over-borrowed. The insurance company canceled the policy, triggering a taxable gain in 2014 and Emily owed $41,000 in federal taxes and $8,000 in state taxes. Amy took on the outstanding taxes, which Emily had no means to pay.
Amy explained to the IRS and Franchise Tax Board that for Emily’s protection, a payee receives her disability benefits, her sole income source, on her behalf and pays for necessities, then gives Emily the remainder as small weekly stipends. Emily has no remaining money after paying for living expenses. Amy submitted offers to settle Emily’s past debts for $1.00 each. The IRS accepted, forgiving $41,000, and the Franchise Tax Board’s decision is pending.
Emily’s background of trauma and disabilities make it difficult for her to trust people and to communicate. But because Katie worked extensively with her and JDC has other services to holistically support clients, Emily remains in her home safely and with her limited income intact.
*Amy became Visiting Assistant Professor and Clinic Director at UC Hastings College of the Law in February 2020.
About the author:
Gloria Chun is the director of JDC’s Pro Bono Legal Services Program