By: Saron Gebresellassi
J.D. Candidate, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law
I am presently stationed at the Los Angeles Superior Court where I am a Legal Extern with the Shriver Housing Project- Los Angeles. The Shriver Housing Project represents the largest and most dramatic experiment in American legal services since the 1970s. In 2009, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat, sponsored the historic Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act. Named after Sergeant Shriver, a leader in the 1960’s “war on poverty”, the Shriver Program is a pioneering effort to answer the question of whether there should be a right to counsel for low-income litigants in cases involving basic human needs, like shelter. Attorneys from across Los Angeles have joined forces in an ambitious effort to provide 2000 litigants each year (for 3 years) with an attorney to represent them in their eviction cases. This effort is the first in the country, and has received significant media and judicial attention from around the country.
This year, 18,000 people will have eviction orders upheld against them in the Los Angeles Superior Court. Violence and poverty are so pervasive in L.A., it escapes adequate description. At Shriver, a dedicated team of attorneys see dozens of litigants every day providing either full or partial legal representation to fight unjust lawsuits. The litigants who come to our doors are almost exclusively Black or Hispanic, often with limited skills, income and education. Approximately forty per cent of the Hispanic litigants are monolingual Spanish speakers and have little to no chance of winning their cases in court without the assistance of an attorney. They are struggling to survive in a city where unfathomable living conditions are business as usual for low-income residents.
Children and families live in dangerous housing projects with inadequate heat and water, defective plumbing, bed bug infestations, broken locks, abusive and bigoted landlords, and unsanitary premises. These deplorable conditions exist in L.A. neighborhoods which have gained international notoriety for violence and neglect. For some reason inner city culture continues to be romanticized in popular culture. The segment of the population which invariably suffers the most amidst conflict and disorder is children. For them, it is anything but glamorous.
It has become clear to me from my time here that legal representation and a right to counsel in eviction proceedings make a world of a difference for tenants and their families. However, it can never adequately address the poverty crisis that exists here. That will require political and social transformation on a large scale. This question is fundamentally concerned with the equitable distribution of resources and no doubt there exists no shortage of vibrant initiatives here to combat poverty. There is a lot of uncertainty and unanswered questions but if there is one thing I know definitively, it is that the litigants who I see here are resilient beyond measure. They remain steadfast and dignified while living with the wounds and indignities of poverty and racism every single day.
If you are interested in doing pro bono legal work in Los Angeles, consider offering your talents to the Shriver Housing Project-LA. Learn more at www.shriverhousingla.org.