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A Tiny Mishap Spirals Out of Control

A story from an Atlanta Legal Aid senior attorney, Mara Block.

When my son discovered standing water in our basement a few months ago, the first thing that I thought of (after the initial shock and panic) was my clients. As a 10-year veteran of legal services work, I know that the margin of error for our clients is razor-thin. For people living in poverty, even those with jobs and income, the tiniest mishap sets into motion a spiral of consequences that can lead to homelessness, families splitting apart, and income loss.

So while I filed a claim, scheduled the plumber, and had the remodel in process within a few days, I was thinking of how something like this could devastate my clients. I thought about how with the little things that annoy and distract—a kid with an ear infection that needs antibiotics or a punctured tire on the way to work—I can pay to fix, dust myself off, and move along with my day. For those of us that have some cushion of support, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to not have that backup.

Yet, just last week I talked to a woman named Sharon who nearly lost her home despite doing everything right. Sharon lives with a serious health condition and receives income from Social Security disability because she is unable to work. Two months ago, Sharon’s mom got sick and she wanted to be with her. Knowing that a bus ticket would make her short on her rent for the month, she proactively sought one-time financial assistance from a local non-profit in order to make up the difference in her rent and be able to visit her mother. Due to circumstances beyond Sharon’s control, the check arrived to her property manager two days late. Despite the fact that she had lived there for three years and always paid her rent on time, the property manager charged her a $200 late fee and threatened her with eviction. With Legal Aid’s guidance, Sharon better understood her rights and was able to come up with the extra money and contest the eviction, so she will be able to stay in her home. But no one should have to go through this kind of stress when they have done nothing wrong.

This is what Legal Aid attorneys fight for—if we can win our clients just $50.00, it can keep a roof over a family’s heads. If we can talk them through their rights and offer them pathways to avoid a crisis, we can keep families together. If we can be there to make sure that our clients get the extra few dollars of food stamps they are entitled to, they have just slightly more wiggle room when the next crisis hits.

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