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Hollie: Biggest job is finding ‘normal’ again

The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a litany of unexpected consequences, not least of which has been the financial and legal concerns of Alabama’s most vulnerable residents, many of which call the Black Belt home.

For Legal Services Alabama (LSA), that has meant long hours, heavier caseloads and new programs as clients cope with lost jobs and wages, navigating a complex web of aid and relief applications and trying to stay afloat while the crisis rages on.

According to LSA Managing Attorney Elizabeth Hollie, one of the biggest hurdles clients are facing is accessing information related to filing for unemployment or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, on top of worrying about evictions, foreclosures and wage garnishments.

“There were concerns about whether they would be evicted or their homes placed in foreclosure and whether the economic impact payment, known as the stimulus payment, can be garnished,” Hollie said. “We are seeing an increased number of bank accounts being frozen or garnished once the payment is deposited into the person’s account.”

In response, LSA has established a disaster relief hotline, which can be reached at 877-393-2333, to assist those impacted by the pandemic, and is offering free Continuing Legal Education (CLE) webinars for attorneys to help them navigate representing clients during the crisis and provide updated information.

Hollie noted that the need for assistance has grown during the crisis, with LSA’s call center handling nearly 1000 calls in one day last week, and LSA’s growing visibility through social media, client and organization referrals means that more people are turning to them for help.

“We are a source of legal help to people who need a lawyer,” Hollie said.

Around this time last year, Hollie said her workload was around 80 cases but, lately she has had to dedicate two or three days each week to helping out at the call center, providing legal assistance to those calling in, on top of her regular caseload.

While financial struggles are a c somewhat common occurrence in the pandemic’s wake, Hollie said other issues that are generally overlooked have also cropped up, including the increased need for Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders as victims are now being required to shelter in place.

“This is not just spousal or significant other abuse,” Hollie said. “There may be an elderly person who is abused by their caretaker.”

Additionally, the threat of debt collection actions, bank account garnishments, evictions and foreclosures has risen as people have lost their jobs.

“Some people don’t have money to buy food and, with the children at home, they have become the full-time teachers,” Hollie said. “Many families depended on school breakfasts and lunches to feed their children during the day; now, they have a need to have more food at home. With the prices of some food items being priced at ridiculously high prices, they can’t feed their families.”

For her part, Hollie sees a continuation of quarantine orders into Summer only leading to more legal issues for vulnerable populations in the form of evictions and foreclosures or lawsuits over unpaid bills.

“Legal issues I see arising are people becoming homeless due to evictions and foreclosures taking place If the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures is not extended,” Hollie said. “Another problem may be more people being sued because they can’t pay their bills due to being unemployed. Some companies may work with their customers, but many will not. This may lead to the repossession of vehicles and even furniture. This will lead to a lot of bankruptcy cases being filed.”

While Hollie can’t say what impacts a premature reopening of the state’s economy might have on vulnerable populations, she knows that LSA will have a role to play in lending a hand to needy folks as the pandemic wanes.

“It is hard to say what could happen if restrictions are lifted too soon,” Hollie said. “This pandemic, and the precautions we must take, is something I haven’t seen during my lifetime. We don’t know what to expect. The biggest job will be trying to find ‘normal’ again, whatever ‘normal’ is to each person. LSA is still working for our clients and any new clients who seek our help. We are trying to provide some type of normalcy right now for those who need legal assistance.”