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Those who fight for those who cannot

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A few weeks ago, we visited Mutual Ground, a shelter in Aurora for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, to talk to its staff about community partnership. We met with five members of the Mutual Ground staff, including the Executive Director, who gave us a tour of the facility.

This was my first visit to a domestic violence shelter. I wanted to know what services the organization provides and how it provides them, but I was unsure of what to expect. I found that in some ways, the organizational structure was very similar to that of Hesed House, and in others, quite different. As we were going through the meeting and the tour, my reactions were similar to how I had felt when touring Hesed House, but they were also more immediate. While taking the Hesed House tour, I had thought about what I would do if I was a single mother with two young children and suddenly became homeless, or if my husband and I became homeless with our children. But because it is hard for me to imagine myself in such a situation, I felt one step removed from the experience. By contrast, Mutual Ground had an immediate impact on me, because as a woman, this is a threat that always hovers in the background for me. It was not difficult for me to place myself in the situation of the women – or the men – walking into the shelter.

Many things surprised me and moved me beyond words at the meeting. To begin with, I had no idea that a shelter could provide so many resources. I do not know if Mutual Ground is a standard model in terms of what most shelters can provide, or if it is exceptionally well-equipped, but I was tremendously impressed to learn about its advocacy, volunteering, fund-raising, informational and support activities, and the services it provides for both sexes. For instance, I did not know that a shelter can send a legal advocate to support a domestic violence survivor when she/he appears in court. I did not know that a shelter can send speakers into schools and communities to educate children and the general population, and that such education is required in every grade in a school. I was astounded to learn that Mutual Ground staff members had conducted more than 1400 presentations at schools last year – an outstanding testament to the organization’s commitment to community advocacy and outreach. I did not know that the Executive Director of a shelter has to speak to the state’s General Assembly every year to fight to keep the shelter’s funding.

I found myself being surprised over and over again at how fearless, strong and realistic the women were, in terms of the services they provide, what they seek to achieve, and what they know they can achieve. There was an obvious bond of camaraderie, wisdom, strength and hopefulness about the group that undoubtedly exists in any organization such as Mutual Ground or Hesed House, and it provides an emotional and psychological support that such hard work surely requires, and that makes the work even more meaningful in my eyes. Over and over again, the matter-of-fact way in which the women talked about some issues and certain aspects of the tour were reminders to me of their daily battles. A woman who will return to her abuser repeatedly, the legal challenges to sole custody for a woman divorcing her violent partner, the two playrooms for children who have been sexually assaulted, the rooms filled with clothes and supplies so that the women feel at home and not devalued and dehumanized, the room on the first floor that was intended for women who cannot climb up to the second floor, sometimes because they have been beaten so badly, the police drop-offs at 2 a.m. – all these were stark realities.

At the same time, the fact that the women can only stay in the shelter for about 40 days but that most move out within two weeks was a clear indication that most of these women see themselves as survivors with lives that carry on despite the current trauma that they must overcome, particularly if their jobs and social networks remain in place and they can find a living space fairly quickly. Homeless persons, on the other hand, face a different set of challenges. If a homeless person does not have viable employment or someone willing to provide shelter, transitioning into a different mode of being is its own battle, and a homeless person may need more time to move out of a shelter than a survivor of domestic violence. Hence, Hesed House has a transitional living space for long-term residents, but Mutual Ground does not, which shed new light on these experiences for me. Both modes of being require tremendous resilience, courage and self-determination to conquer, but the challenges can be very different.

My own experiences with domestic violence and sexual assault make me deeply aware of the extreme shame that surrounds them, and the taboos that prevent an abused person from removing herself/himself from such a situation. There is a host of cultural, social, religious, financial, emotional, and psychological barriers to walking away from abuse. However, my visit to Mutual Ground demonstrated to me that if community members, and especially children, are educated about the nature of abuse, its immediate damage, its long-term impact, the irrelevance of many of the taboos, and the support system that exists for survivors – the information and support provided by an organization like Mutual Ground – it makes the process a little more bearable, and it can provide that last bit of strength one needs to walk away. I went through the tour thinking of how such information could be made ever more accessible to everyone, and how people could be made aware, truly aware, that it is okay and absolutely critical for them to talk about abuse and sexual assault and to find a safe space – because such spaces really do exist, created by places like Mutual Ground. For those who experience domestic violence and sexual assault, there really can be a “a shelter from the storm,” as Mutual Ground is described in its literature.

Sarmistha (Buri) Banerjee

The Inner Workings of SNAP

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In the clinic we have learned about and discussed several government-funded programs that aid those who are in need. The most recent program we have discussed is SNAP (Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program). According to Snap to Health, a website that discusses SNAP, the first food assistance program was established in 1939. Snap to Health states that this program was implemented under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration; specifically, it was enacted along with President Franklin’s New Deal program. In 1964, the Food Stamp Act was passed. Since this time, there have been various changes including an increase in monetary support in the 1970s , and a decrease in monetary support in the 1980s. In 2008, the program was renamed SNAP. What is interesting about this program is that there is a high likelihood that the next person you see walking down the street may be on SNAP because this program assists many people. For example, according to Building a Healthy America: A Profile of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by the United States Department of Agriculture, 45 million people used SNAP benefits in the fiscal year 2011. This means that during that time period, one in seven Americans received SNAP funding.

There are basic requirements an individual has to meet in order to qualify for SNAP benefits. First, there are citizenship requirements. Both U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens can qualify for the SNAP program. If an individual is a non-U.S. citizen, there are several categories in which a non-U.S. citizen could qualify. Second, SNAP calculates benefits based on one’s household. According to the United States Department of Health Food and Nutrition Service, a household is all of the people who buy and prepare meals and live together. Last, there is a work requirement that mandates that an individual who is not exempted from working must actively seek a job and accept a job offer.

Emergency benefits are a significant advantage in the SNAP program. If an individual is in need of SNAP benefits immediately, emergency SNAP benefits can be expedited within five days of applying for benefits. However, emergency benefits are granted when an individual meets certain program requirements. According to the Department of Human Services’ website, in order to qualify for emergency benefits, one’s monthly income has to be less than $150 and the assets in an individual’s bank accounts cannot equal more than $100.

Once an individual is qualified to receive SNAP funding, the individual can then use the SNAP benefits for food items. Most food items in a grocery store can be bought with SNAP benefits, including nutritious foods such as breads, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and non-nutritious foods. Non-food items and prepared food cannot be purchased under the SNAP program, such as cigarettes, alcohol, and animal food. In addition to these food restrictions, participants must report their income every month.

One of the more controversial issues is that there is no asset requirement in order to be eligible for SNAP. Notwithstanding two minor exceptions, asset limits have been eliminated in all households in the State of Illinois. This characteristic of SNAP increases the likelihood that one could abuse the SNAP program. For example, even if someone is not working and can qualify for SNAP, he or she may have assets of two million dollars. While this is not likely to happen, it is a risk that can be withstood. The right to food is a basic right. People cannot and should not starve, and, moreover, the government has an obligation to fulfill this right. It would be difficult to comprehend a program that could better serve the thousands of Americans who are in need of food. Moreover, would we not rather ensure that most people have access to food? The concerns surrounding SNAP are present and are owed deference, but at this point in time, what is the alternative? A person’s ability to access food outweighs the negative implications of the program because the risk of depriving those who are in actual need of the system is too great. 

Review, Edit, Create

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I have been working on several intake forms, which has been a learning experience in so many ways. With each new form, I learn more about what we need to know in order to help our clients. I have greatly benefited from not only making the forms but from also being able to see how we will be using the forms.

When I was starting each form, I did not know what the purpose of the form was going to be in the end. Each form had a topic but the purpose was something elusive. I began making each form without knowledge of whether I would be doing the task correctly or not. Instead, with each new form I hoped that I did what was asked of me to the best of my ability and understanding. During my review and creation of the forms I was always trying to keep in mind what we were going to use the form for and what was a necessary part of each form.

During each form I would always worry if I was making it correctly, and sometimes I would be nervous that I did not understand the reason I was making this specific form.

I think my feelings stemmed from my confusion at times about the purpose of each form. It was not that the form was not explained to me, it was because I lack the knowledge and background to know what is needed to start a clinic. Even though I have read a lot about the making of a Medical-Legal Partnership, the articles never list every form that is needed. The articles talk about how to handle clients and work with other professionals, not that you need an intake form, a medical release, a general release, a referral form and forms for each problem area. Not only was I not prepared to make them; I was not prepared to know how and when to use them.

The forms and basics of a clinic or any legal practice are not something that is exciting but I have come to realize that they are important. I want to learn how to use them. I hope to continue to grow by creating and using the forms. I think I learn a lot about what we are really doing in clinic with each new form. I hope to continue to learn how important each form is and the best way to use each form to benefit us, and the client. 

Finding Common Ground

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About a week ago, our team toured the Hesed House facilities a second time and learned more about the transitional living portion of the shelter. Brightly painted doors leading to dormitory style rooms line both sides of a long hallway, and furniture sits in the hallway waiting for a thorough cleaning. Our guide explained that this was a very good sign, because it meant that someone had moved out and transitioned to independence. The communal kitchen is large and clean. As we passed through, a young mother was feeding her sons breakfast; they were dressed in superhero pajamas and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their cereal. Our guide then showed us the communal living space, which included a space for watching television, two computers, and several dining tables. Residents must check out the remotes in order to watch television. There is also a children’s playroom that is used for structured children’s programs and can be reserved by parents for private family time.

I went into this experience expecting very little. I had experienced this tour only a few months ago. At that time, I had been incredibly impacted by the dedication of Hesed House and by its holistic approach to serving the homeless community. Although I looked forward to hearing about the organization again, I didn’t expect to gain a lot from it. However, as the tour began, I noticed things I had missed the first time. Having heard the impressive statistics and the theory behind each program before, I found myself focusing on the guests and the looks in their faces. I found myself wondering what it would be like to live at Hesed House.

The Hesed House facilities lie in stark contrast to the life of a sixth grade girl, Dasani, who lives in a New York housing project and was profiled in the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child.” Her family of nine is crammed into a room plagued with asbestos, lead paint, rotting walls, and mice. She and her seven siblings fear sexual predators and use the bathroom only in pairs. Mealtimes include an hour-long line to receive a meal and another line to microwave it each night.

Far different from Dasani’s life at Auburn, the families residing in the transitional living space in Hesed House enjoy clean, private rooms and share recreational space. The Hesed staff ensures that school buses pick up children each morning and that no child worries about safety. However, this second tour made the challenges inherent in not having a private home incredibly real to me. It would be difficult to ever feel relaxed and at home. There is something intangible about private space, about coming home and shutting the door to the world outside your family. Private arguments, meltdowns, and even illnesses are a luxury many do not enjoy.

Perhaps I was surprised and upset by this, because I place high value on time at home with family. With a busy family going in several directions, our time together without friends, employees, boyfriends, etc. is precious. Home is a place where I can let my hair down, cry about stupid things, and wear sweats all day without judgment. Even as a 25-year-old, I value the rare times where the stars align, and my entire family is together at home. Since I was very young, my mother and father regularly opened our home to anyone from foreign exchange students who had trouble with their host homes, to extended family who needed to leave dysfunctional situations and even dogs who faced the pound. The most recent additions to our family include an ex-convict, an elderly woman my mother picked up on the side of the street, a friend’s girlfriend, and a young hipster trying to find himself. My upbringing taught me to be comfortable with strangers around and to want to welcome people into my home and family, but it also caused me to cherish private time. I suppose I was so impacted by this experience, because I recognized a challenge that Hesed House guests and I share.

With this (small) piece of common ground, I will endeavor to understand where our clients are coming from. I can build upon this and find other areas in which we share challenges, interests, and goals. Practically, I hope to be able to give a little extra grace to clients, knowing more about the challenges they face.

Bailey Standish

Soul-Searching My Way Through Survey Writing

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One of the tasks that we undertook in our foundational work for the clinic was creating a survey that will be handed out to patients of Aunt Martha’s before we begin seeing clients.  It is meant to provide us with a sense of which legal issues might be common or most urgent among the patients, so that we can determine which legal matters will likely require our attention.  Given our resources, we will not be able to address every legal issue facing prospective clients and we will have to pick our battles.  This is difficult because as clinic students we want to take on every challenge and represent every client.  This survey will help us focus our skills in the areas that are affecting the most people.

Having completed nearly three years of law school, I have almost lost my ability to communicate with people in easily understandable language.  When such communication involves connecting with persons who may have little formal education and who face language barriers, health concerns, financial crises and legal difficulties — private worries that they are being asked to expose to an unknown third party — every word in that communication becomes loaded.  Even though the survey is anonymous, I can imagine how the person filling it out might feel.  I feel the same way when I am filling out an intake form each time I see a new doctor or have to update my medical history.  Every personal question seems like an intrusion into my privacy and I feel defensive at the very idea of anyone having this information.  Why does the doctor need to know if I’ve ever done drugs, or tested positive for HIV, or got beaten up by a partner?  Even though I laugh at my absurdity in my head, my heart resists.  And I certainly have the education, the experience, and the social knowledge to understand why my doctor needs to know everything about me, and to also know that anything I tell him or her is protected by doctor-patient confidentiality.  But what about the patient at Aunt Martha’s who comes in with a chronic breathing condition and is handed out a survey that does not appear to have anything to do with his medical situation?  He is asked about his living conditions, his financial resources, his immigration status.  Even though the survey says in bold letters across the top that it is confidential, he must circle his responses and return it to the medical practitioner who is treating him.  That practitioner may glance down at his answers and inevitably, some may catch her eye.  Will that make the patient feel a little more exposed, a little less worthy?  Will that make the practitioner treat the patient differently, even if just by a little bit?

As law students, we train to be neutral and non-judgmental.  We are taught to focus on the legal matter and to find the legal solution, to concentrate on the “facts” of the case.  We are taught to be a zealous advocate, to be client-centered.  But how can one separate the facts of the case from the reality of the client’s life?  Especially when one’s client population is particularly vulnerable?  For every word that I wrote for the survey, I had to put myself in the shoes of my prospective client.  What would I think if I came to Aunt Martha’s and was handed this survey?  How would these questions make me feel?  Not only did I have to think of the language in a way that would be least shaming for the person filling it out, I also had to make it as comprehensible and non-technical as possible.

Creating this survey became a life lesson for me in how I could gain the most knowledge about the problems deeply affecting someone without undercutting her dignity.  It was a humbling experience, and an invaluable learning experience in effective and respectful communication.  At the same time, the exercise made me self-aware and mindful of the ever-present dangers of arrogance and patronizing superiority that seem to characterize our profession to the outside world.

Sarmistha (Buri) Banerjee

New Outlook

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Sometimes there are just things that we cannot understand. I have found myself feeling that way more often than not. This may not be the most understandable position to take when dealing with the effects of poverty on individuals but it is hard for me to wrap my logic around why so many people are struggling with poverty. I know that there are so many reasons why poverty happens, from society to personal. I try to think of ways to solve the problem, that is when I realize that there is not just one problem. How can you solve a problem that has so many aspects? It is disheartening; maybe there is no solution.

But I can at least be part of a solution; anyone can be if they choose. Awareness is the first step, but what I have come to realize is that awareness takes time. We are all aware that poverty exists, but what we need is a deeper awareness. A deeper awareness to me is a type of understanding that brings every aspect of the problem together to show you the big picture. After three months I am beginning to see the bigger picture, but that is after countless years of prior awareness. Now, I am learning, experiencing and gathering. I am learning about the factors that can cause poverty, how each one is unique and influential. I am experiencing my conceptions and grasp of the world around me shift. I am gathering the information needed to have awareness and be able to help combat the problem. I have had the tools to be aware all along. However, I am only now starting to use those tools.

Setting up the clinic has been vital to my learning experience. You can only go so far on your own. Everything I have read for class has expanded my ability to understand what I will be working toward in the clinic. I will be making a change. Although each change will be a small step and maybe only one step in the right direction, to the person I am helping, it could mean survival. Survival, this is something I have never had to fight for. But individuals living in poverty have to fight for survival everyday. One wrong decision could lead to a downward spiral of negative consequences and struggle. It is hard to imagine one decision that could create such a response. It is especially hard to imagine when that one decision can be something simple like paying rent or eating dinner. Those decisions are things that an average American would not have to make, but individuals in poverty deal with those decisions everyday.

Decisions that should be made easier through change to the way our society handles these problems. Make things simpler. Make things easier. I don’t feel strongly either way about governmental aid; I see positives and negatives to both sides. What I do feel is that our society already has programs in place that give aid and if they are in place they should be utilized to better the lives of others. Often, the only need, which creates the ability to survive, is one thing. What I have learned is that one act, one thing, one decision can make a difference or can be the undoing of everything. I do not know why that is what has stuck with me, but it has made a huge impact on my perception of poverty.

I think of the family who does not know about a resource, so they do not receive that one thing is the difference. That is what makes this clinic stand out to me. We could provide assistance to those who need that one thing that is the difference. We could be the difference in someone’s life. I want to be that difference. I am excited for the clinic to start making a difference and an impact on the community surrounding it. What this class has taught me is that we can help. We can make the difference that is needed and affect the lives of those who need help the most. Isn’t that what being a lawyer is about? Advocating for those who need it? Who needs it more than someone in poverty, where only one act can be the difference between survival and losing it all?

I will take what I have learned with me into my practice of law. I will hopefully be a better listener, more understanding and most importantly a trusted advocate. I understand why we need to learn about all aspects that create poverty. We need to not only be able to pick them out so we can help solve the problems they cause but we also need to understand them so we understand our client. I now have a better understanding of my potential clients through this experience. It has been a great learning experience, and will hopefully make me a better advocate.

Experiential Learning

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It turns out that when they call clinics “experiential learning,” they really mean it.

Emily, Buri, and I are enjoying the unique opportunity to participate in setting up a medical-legal clinic. We are seeing things from the very beginning stages and learning about all of the thought and planning that goes into a clinic before you ever meet your first client.

We drafted agreements, started a blog, communicated with healthcare professionals, researched social determinants of health, and delved into the world of poverty through research and in-depth discussion. Our experiences thus far have been both challenging and engaging; they have opened my eyes to a new world and new ways of thinking. I expected that, but I did not expect to learn so much about myself.

This was supposed to be the safe semester. We are not even taking clients. I believe that I subconsciously hoped my work this semester would be just a half a step away from the classroom context I have become so comfortable with. This was not the case. In place of the intellectually stimulating but rarely upsetting work I wanted, this clinical experience has been just that—quite an experience.

I have been forced to confront my own biases and the position from which I act and make decisions. A few short months ago, I was far less aware of these very real issues.

Through readings providing a vivid picture of poverty and homelessness, I was forced to acknowledge and adjust my view of the indigent population.

I was struck by the fact that there is no clear definition or profile for the “poor,” and there is no single party to blame. In the introduction to his book, The Working Poor, David Shipler suggests, but I will say that I believe, that society is largely to blame for poverty. Why don’t we care for our mothers, brothers, cousins, aunts who are in poverty? Yes, the individual is often responsible, but if there are poor, there is probably something wrong with our greater system. It cannot be just an isolated addiction or case of bad luck.

Mr. Shipler also addresses the morality of poverty. This is a concept I had not consciously addressed. He states that, for many, “hard work is not merely practical but also moral; its absence suggests an ethical lapse. A harsh logic dictates a harsh judgment: If a person’s diligent work leads to prosperity, if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through work, then the failure to do so is a fall from righteousness.”

Do I subconsciously think this? I’ve never been very motivated by money or given it much thought in my personal life, but I’ve also never lacked it. I think that I may subconsciously give someone more value, or more credibility at least, when I learn that they make a substantial amount of money or drive an expensive car. Being the product of the twenty-first century that I am, I was quite uncomfortable admitting that this necessarily means that I place some moral judgment on those who lack social and economic success. This was directly challenged as I read countless stories of those who found themselves caught in the vicious cycle of poverty. Some lacked the hope to pull themselves out of it, and some were victims of misfortune that upset the delicate balance so many must maintain to stay out of poverty.

As we studied and discussed cultural differences and how to strive for cultural competence, I was forced to wrestle with my ability (or perhaps inability) to recognize that those who come from other cultures or family situations may communicate and think differently than me. Further, I was challenged to learn to look for similarities when they may not be obvious. I anticipate that the greatest challenge may be learning to appropriately balance the two.

As the ‘type A’ outnumbered in a very ‘type B’ family that often thinks it is the exception to every rule, I thought I was accustomed to being challenged and questioned. However, I am thrilled to say that this experience is stretching me in a new way. What a privilege to leave the confines of the classroom for “experiential learning” that is anything but safe. 

Bailey Standish