Imagine this: You’ve reached the end of your work day and you’re heading home. You shut down your computer, grab your briefcase and umbrella, and head to your car. As you ease out of the parking garage and into Atlanta rush hour traffic, you start thinking about what’s waiting for you at home. What do you have in the fridge for dinner? What veggies did you pick up at the grocery store last weekend? Should you splurge and order delivery? Or if your other half beat you home, maybe dinner will be coming together already, something simmering on the stove, delicious smells radiating from the hot oven. You make a mental note to throw a load of laundry into the washing machine before sitting down to eat.
In 2013, Susan and her boyfriend, Juan, rented a home in South Fulton. A few months later, Susan was hospitalized, and Juan stayed with friends nearby so he could visit her frequently. When Susan was released, she and Juan returned to the home, only to discover that their landlord had turned off the water, changed the locks, and pawed through their belongings.
My client, Mary Jackson, and I stood in the hallway outside Fulton County Courtroom 1B – eviction court. Ms. Jackson rubbed her reddened eyes. She had just finished describing the conditions inside her rented home: a broken furnace that forced her and her children to huddle around space heaters; a non-functioning oven; uneven floors that dipped dangerously downward; holes in the doors that let the cold air in. She listed all of the times she called her landlord for help, only to be brushed off. The landlord listened placidly, his face unmoving. Finally he leaned in toward me. “It’s not,” he said with disdain, “like I’m a slumlord.”
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.
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.
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.