While this blog is almost exclusively about China, I hope that you will grant me one indulgence and permit me to publish an essay not about China. This essay is about a Christmas Eve when I was a legal services attorney at Mobilization for Justice. I feel very fortunate that I had the privilege to work with such selfless attorneys who gave daily so much of themselves to help those that society too often leaves behind. This essay was picked up by the New York Daily News and you can read the slightly abridged version at their website here. The unedited version is below.
I hope that, in this season of giving, you think of your local legal services organizations.
May all my readers have a very happy holiday and healthy New Year, and see you after January 1, with more hard-hitting China-related pieces!
Lights of Encouragement
By Elizabeth M. Lynch; originally published in the New York Daily News
To protect attorney-client privilege, all names have been changed
It was three o’clock on Christmas eve day. The normally bustling office of Mobilization for Justice (or MFJ as most people call it) was quiet with the 2 p.m. early closing. The waiting room, ordinarily filled with clients desperate for a free lawyer, was empty. The phones, usually ringing non-stop with the problems of the poor, did not utter a buzz. Any client that did come to our office saw the signs the front desk staff had taped up – in English and Spanish – saying we would reopen on the 26th. The few remaining people in the office were a couple of lawyers who needed the uninterrupted solitude – a luxury rarely afforded a legal services attorney – to catch up on work.
But as I sat in my office, hoping to leave by 4, I heard faint tapping on our waiting room window. I ignored it, hoping that the person would see the signs hanging up in between the faded holiday decorations. But the tapping persisted. I stopped my work and, somewhat annoyed, walked to the front desk. There, on the other side of the glass partition, was a petite woman, around 30 years old. I could tell that she had dressed up for the visit, red lipstick freshly applied, hoping that presenting the best version of herself would garner the free help that so many New Yorkers seek when they come to MFJ. As I slid the glass window open to tell her that we were closed, I saw in her trembling, small hand a marshal’s notice of eviction.
For low-income tenants in New York City, Christmas time is the one time of year that the system shows them any form of generosity; a sort of noblesse oblige given to today’s serfs. During that time, most landlords cease eviction proceedings, most marshals offer a reprieve, and housing court essentially shuts down. The eviction machine doesn’t roar back to life again until about a week after the New Year. But this woman wasn’t so fortunate; her landlord evidently wasn’t participating in this unofficial Christmas amnesty. As I looked up from the notice to the woman, the stain line of tears still evident, I could see in her frightened face the ruined Christmas that had befallen her. The happiness of the lit Christmas tree in her apartment, the joy of seeing her kids open their presents, the warmth of being surrounded by her family for Christmas dinner, so easily snatched and exchanged for the weight of telling her family that they would soon be homeless. My annoyance quickly dissipated, knowing the powerlessness this woman must have felt.
I am not a housing attorney I told her and, since our office was closed, I was not sure if anyone was around to help, I said. I asked her to wait while I checked, taking her eviction notice with me. But as I walked the quiet halls of MFJ, empty office followed empty office. I began to get the sinking feeling that this woman would be getting advice from me, a consumer attorney who had only dabbled in housing court. Finally, I saw the light from an office seeping out into the dark hallway. I walked over to the lit office and there, finishing up his work for the day, was Jose, one of MFJ’s housing attorneys. Jose looked up at me, “Hey, what’s up Liz? You’re still here too?” he asked with a smile. I dispensed with niceties and blurted out “There is a woman in the waiting room who received an eviction notice this morning.” Jose’s smile vanished; a look of disbelief crossed his face. I handed him the eviction notice. “But it’s Christmas,” Jose said more to himself than to me, “this shouldn’t be happening.” After a long pause, Jose stopped his work, got up and walked down the dark hallway to the waiting room; I followed. He opened the door, letting the little bit of office light flood the dim waiting room. He turned to Ms. Garcia and gently said “Ms. Garcia, let me see what we can do.” A small smile passed over Ms. Garcia’s face as she walked into our office, likely hearing the first hopeful words of the day. Jose didn’t leave before seven that Christmas Eve night.
Ms. Garcia became one of the 11,000 clients that MFJ’s attorneys serve annually in New York City, and because of MFJ, her eviction was successfully avoided. But, in finding a free lawyer, Ms. Garcia was one of the lucky ones. In 2017, 230,071 eviction proceedings were filed in New York City and in 2018, 100,186 debt collection cases – cases that often result in the garnishment of wages and can lead to a cascading effect in low-income families – were filed. New York City has made significant inroads in providing more free, civil legal services. It’s Right To Counsel project – guaranteeing an attorney to certain tenants in housing court – is one such initiative. But as of 2018, there were only approximately 1,531 legal services attorneys in New York City according to New York State’s IOLA Fund, 82 of which work for MFJ. While MFJ’s 11,000 clients a year seems impressive, it is only 3% of New York City’s total eviction and debt collection cases. A drop in the bucket.
For Ms. Garcia though, Jose was likely more than just a lawyer. By giving up his time that Christmas Eve to listen to her story, he gave her hope that maybe she had a chance at justice. Winning the case isn’t always the most important part of a legal services attorney’s job; sometimes restoring a person’s faith in a system that all too often is stacked against the poor is just as significant. Lights of encouragement my friend calls them. But for too many of New York City’s most vulnerable – the poor, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence – who are fighting for the basic necessities of life, those lights never shine.