Pandemic Has Many Turning To Legal Aid Lawyers For Help

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Three weeks ago, Jason walked out of a Marietta courtroom under orders to move out of his home.

He, his wife and two children were being evicted.

(WOUB is not using Jason’s last name to protect his privacy)

Jason had been laid off from his job at an auto dealership in July because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.

“I went from $80,000 a year to being told that I couldn’t come to work,” he said.

For the first time in his life, Jason applied for unemployment benefits. But he made a mistake on the application that made him ineligible.

Even after the mistake was resolved, there were more delays caused in part by an unemployment system overwhelmed with applications as the pandemic put millions of people out of work.

Southeastern Ohio Legal Services is seeing a flood of clients desperate for help with unemployment benefits and evictions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Athens, Ohio)

Weeks went by, and when Jason finally figured out what the holdup was it was after a day of phone calls. “It took literally … eight and a half hours of being on the phone with them to get that cleared up that day,” he said.

By this time, Jason had exhausted his savings and couldn’t pay his rent. His landlord decided to evict him. Jason said he had never been late with a rent payment before. He told the landlord he had straightened out the problem with his unemployment benefits and would be receiving them soon. He tried to work out some kind of payment plan.

“I essentially pleaded with my landlord to not evict me, and they went forward with it,” he said.

The day of his eviction hearing, Jason called Southeastern Ohio Legal Services for help. The organization assists low-income people with legal needs.

Lucy Schwallie is the managing attorney for the legal services office in Athens, which has seven attorneys who cover seven counties. Even under normal circumstances, she said, her office is stretched thin given that a substantial percentage of the population in southeast Ohio meets the organization’s definition of a low-income household.

Since the onset of the pandemic, her office is busier than ever, Schwallie said. The first big wave was people who applied for unemployment benefits and were denied or were experiencing significant delays.

“The system has been overloaded and when there are literally hundreds of thousands of more people accessing these systems than were previously, all of the issues that existed before are magnified,” Schwallie said.

The next big wave of clients was people facing evictions. And many of these people were like Jason, who had been laid off from good-paying jobs, people who never thought they would be turning to a legal aid attorney for help.

Schwallie said the pandemic is not only bringing in more clients, but is also affecting how her attorneys do their work. Many courts are conducting hearings online now. This is a challenge for many people in southeastern Ohio who lack access to reliable internet service, because they can’t afford it or it’s just not available.

She and her staff are having to get creative.

“For example, I had an unemployment appeal that I recently did the hearing with my client at a local library, in the conference room, six feet apart with masks on and with the phone right between us,” Schwallie said.

The coronavirus has also raised the stakes for an eviction, Schwallie said, “because taking your family to a shelter could be significantly more risky during a pandemic than it was before.”

At the beginning of September, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a moratorium on evictions. But it’s not automatic. It’s up to renters to fill out the necessary paperwork and get it filed.

This is what Schwallie’s office helped Jason do when he called.

“Right from the very beginning I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Jason said of his attorney, Ryan Agee. “The conversation took off as though we were long-term friends and he cared just as much about my eviction.”

But there wasn’t enough time to get the paperwork completed before the eviction hearing. Jason figured he’d just tell the landlord and the judge that he was taking the proper steps and that would put an end to things.

It didn’t work out that way.

“My landlord essentially said, ‘Well too bad, he doesn’t have the paperwork so this hearing needs to move forward,’” Jason said. “I feel like this pandemic … it’s shown some people’s real colors. It’s kind of sad. But they weren’t willing to help or willing to be understanding at all. And it was kind of disheartening for sure.”

The day after the hearing, Jason’s moratorium paperwork was filed and the judge halted the eviction order.

A week later, Jason received his first unemployment check. He’s able to keep up with his rent and other bills now and can finally really focus on finding another job.

He credits legal services.

“Without them, without their help … I don’t want to imagine what we’d be going through right now, I really don’t.”