Over the course of 38 Saturdays in 2014, 286 volunteer attorneys met with 353 low-income Atlantans via AVLF’s Saturday Lawyer Program.
Most of these clients – over 80 percent of them – came to us because of problems with their landlords: lack of repairs, unreturned security deposits, illegal evictions. These clients included Ms. Murphy, who told us that she slept with cotton balls in her ears to keep out the cockroach infestation while she slept. They included Ms. Watson, whose landlord ignored her complaints about the cracking, sagging ceiling – until the ceiling caved in on her and damaged her neck. The remaining clients were evenly split between unpaid wage issues and consumer debt disputes.
Ms. Travis was a low-income single mother in Fulton County who was thrilled to sign a lease and pay a deposit on a new apartment. But when she moved in, she discovered that the unit had no running water, no functional electricity or appliances, and no working door locks. She reported the problems to the landlord, whose response was essentially “too bad.” He refused to repair the unit or release Ms. Travis from her lease. She reached out to the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation for help, and I accepted the case pro bono.
Walt Davis is a Partner in the Atlanta office of Jones Day, the largest law firm in the U.S. and among the largest worldwide. At Jones Day, Walt’s practice principally focuses on shareholder litigation and corporate governance matters, and he regularly counsels corporate boards, board committees, and senior management in connection with internal and governmental investigations. In recent years, Walt has been named a “Rising Star” in the area of Securities Litigation by Georgia Super Lawyers magazine, and in 2013, he was named one of the Fulton County Daily Report’s “40 Legal Rising Stars to Watch” in Georgia. Walt is also a graduating member of LEAD Atlanta, Class of 2007.
Jim McGinnis, a partner at Warner Bates McGough McGinnis & Portnoy, has assisted clients for more than 30 years in his work before judges and juries across Georgia as one of the state’s leading family lawyers. (Warner Bates is the oldest family law firm in the state.) His practice includes divorce and custody cases, and his 13 appeals cases before the State Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Georgia resulted in published opinions.
“The work of the Volunteer Lawyers Foundation is vitally necessary and, from a personal standpoint, personally gratifying,” said Jim of his board position. “I value every minute of my time here and recommend it to others.”
Jim works with every aspect of AVLF as treasurer but has done the most work with the Guardian ad Litem program. “Navigating the legal system has its challenges, and no child should ever shoulder that burden,” he says. “Time spent helping children is always time well-spent.”
On September 15, AVLF sponsored a screening of the documentary American Winter. Through the stories of eight families, the documentary vividly shows how one lost job can cascade into depleted savings, utility shutoffs, eviction, homelessness, hunger, and profound hopelessness.
The film follows one woman visiting a food bank for the first time. As a worker places food in her basket, the woman breaks down crying. She explains that she’s never had to turn to a food bank before; the groceries will make a huge difference to her family. The worker hugs her, touches her hand, looks in her eyes. “You can help somebody another time,” the worker says.
In the four years I’ve worked at the Safe Families Office, I have seen and heard some terrible things. I speak often about worst-case scenarios, be it in trainings or presentations, but there is a distance in the recounting. Last week, however, there was no distance when a voice on the other end of the phone said “Liz, there’s been a shooting.” It was the police calling, a call the likes of which I’d never before received and I hope I never do again. The fact that it was happening at all, though, meant a client of ours was involved.
At age 53, I went back to school and got a Bachelor’s Degree in behavioral sciences. I was living in New Jersey at the time. I almost didn’t finish school because of a serious health problem that was nearly fatal. After I graduated, I worked with the families and children of incarcerated people. But I soon began to slip into a deep depression because my health problems caused lasting impairments.
To get a fresh start on life, I decided to move to Georgia, near a childhood friend. I was optimistic about this new beginning. Soon after I got here, I rented an apartment. There were some red flags from the very beginning, but I wasn’t sure if that was because I was in a new state. The apartment complex took my down payment, but kept making excuses for why they wouldn’t show me the unit that I was supposed to rent. Eventually, their headquarters explained to me that there were major electrical problems in the unit, but they told me they were being repaired.
Mrs. Thomas twisted her fingers nervously in her lap. We sat at the kitchen table in her Vine City home, collection notices and court papers spread out before us.
“I wanted to pay the credit card bill,” she told me. “I knew I owed it, and I knew I was supposed to pay. I just didn’t have the money.” Mrs. Thomas called for legal help after she went to the bank to withdraw money and learned that her account had been frozen because of a garnishment.