The Shriver Brief

Justice on Wheels in New York and California

In New York City and California, two very different organizations devoted to improving the lives of low-income people are using a common approach to reach underserved populations.

And that approach involves wheels.

New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) provides free civil legal services to New Yorkers who cannot afford attorneys. With 51 intake sites located in courts, hospitals, and community-based organizations in all five boroughs of New York City as well as Westchester and Long Island, NYLAG helps thousands of people every year with legal problems relating to housing, public benefits, domestic violence, education access, and other issues.

OneJustice, by contrast, does not focus on direct client representation. OneJustice is a California nonprofit organization that helps low-income Californians indirectly—by supporting nonprofit legal services organizations and their pro bono partners. More specifically, OneJustice supports a network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations and 800 staff attorneys with financial leadership, new fundraising strategies, executive coaching, board governance trainings, and more.

Despite these two organizations’ many differences, they both came to the same conclusion a few years ago: they could serve more low-income people if they brought lawyers into more direct contact with the low-income people they wanted to serve. So NYLAG and OneJustice both started thinking about wheels.

NYLAG spent years developing its Mobile Legal Help Center—a 41-foot-long Freightliner truck custom-designed as a fully functioning legal services office. The vehicular office is a partnership between NYLAG and the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program. Not only is the Mobile Legal Help Center a legal services office; a video link to the New York State courts allows judges to preside over emergency hearings in domestic violence and eviction cases. The Mobile Legal Help Center, which launched in January 2012, was an essential component of NYLAG’s Hurricane Sandy response. Storm victims in Red Hook and Coney Island in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island were able to obtain help with FEMA claims, housing, and emergency public benefits quickly and safely, thanks to the Mobile Legal Help Center—even though NYLAG itself was displaced from its Hanover Square office.

OneJustice started its Justice Bus Project in 2007. The project emanated from the realization that low-income rural Californians were suffering from a double bind; they had lots of legal problems—some of them very specialized issues like water access—but very little access to low or no-cost legal assistance. So OneJustice began coordinating Justice Bus trips to bridge the gap between urban pro bono resources and rural and isolated communities that needed help. Often a Justice Bus trip is born when OneJustice contacts a rural legal services organization to discuss its community’s needs, and that conversation sparks an idea for a Justice Bus trip. Substantively, the Justice Bus has handled problems ranging from elder law to economic development. Recently, the Justice Bus traveled more than 600 miles round-trip to help Native American veterans.

Would a mobile component bring a new dimension to your organization’s work? How are these vehicles funded? What are the challenges of staffing them? The answers to these questions and much more can be found in the new issue of Clearinghouse Review, which features articles on the Mobile Legal Help Center and the Justice Bus.

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