Claudia Johnson Blogs on Location of Services Where the Poor Now Are — in the Suburbs

One question I always ask myself is, why are most legal non profits, and their services in urban areas when the poverty populations have been moving from the city to the suburbs en mass in the past 10 years?  Why are most brick and mortar self help centers downtown?

When I was at Bay Legal, while supervising the hotline that served 7 counties, we handled a lot of cases where the cases may have started in SF Superior Court, where they have an excellent self help center that was fully staffed at the time, but the family had moved to another county, into a suburb where with Section 8, the family could rent in a stand alone home in  cul de sac, where it was safe to bring groceries home and leave a bike on the porch. Now the children where in Contra Costa County, and the callers needed help dealing with transferring the case over, to a county that had a total different set up in terms of self help services, as well as little or no legal resources other than our office.

In the magnet suburbs, these the courts did not provide the same type of high touch high volume self help center assistance, and the local non profits were mostly social service agencies that had no legal expertise or acumen reducing their ability and confidence to provide even just information and referrals. The distances from the suburbs to the urban area of the county were large (25+ miles) and enhanced by expensive or non-existant public transportation and/or a long drive that with the congestion becomes a long term ordeal spending over 3 gallons one way, and then incurring huge parking fees, sometime up to $20.00—the trip to seek legal advice to downtown becoming a major expense for someone earning minimum wage.

As the economy shrinks, and court budget shrinks, and self help centers are downsized,  and courts and legal aid find themselves in this economic maelstrom facing increased need and dwindling resources, it is time to think about the suburbs.

Reports are now emerging now that back up what was my perception and what my database told me 3 ½ years ago.  The poverty population is on average increased 53% in the suburbs, while the poverty population in urban areas increased by half at 26% rate. As the NY Times article says, 2/3 of these new suburban poor joined the suburbs from 2007 to 2010.

Low and middle income families, for example single headed households, can no longer survive in the city when their children need access to safe education.  So they leave. Middle and low income persons are moving to the suburbs and leaving the urban core. The urban core is now being retaken by more affluent younger professionals looking, which is great, because it creates a demand for restaurants, entertainment, and high tech connectivity, as it is happening in Philadelphia.

When families leaving crowded and inhabitable housing stock in the city arrive in the suburbs they benefit from better schools, newer housing stock, perhaps larger and better kept homes with private yards, parking on the street, garage, and less crime from the neighborhoods where they moved from.

However, not all is rosy in these new settings.  The new suburban residents experience isolation and distance from non-profit services, and in particular legal services. Moreover, as the budgets of their new county of residence decline, those counties have less experience or capacity serving low income residents. There may be political backlash and community backlash, as happened in Antioch CA, after Section 8 residents move to Antioch from San Francisco in search of a better life for their children (Section 8 settlement).

If the new arrivals are from a different race or culture, the opportunity for potential discrimination grows enourmously. Police departments may not be prepared to provide first respondent services in other languages, they may be in needs of training, or may feel overwhelmed between having to serve a more diverse community and facing budget cuts. Unfortunately, the faster the demographic change the new area experiences, the highest the opportunity for cultural/race clashes as the long term residents of the area build up resentment for the new comers.

This is an opportunity for legal non profits focused on systemic work, which most legal aid groups include as part of their mission.  Legal non profits will need to provide their assistance and expertise to help those local communities serve these newer residents as they would the long time residents of these suburban areas.

Moreover, food banks, shelters in the suburban areas may also be over stretched. Legal aid can be a valuable resource to these groups in communicating with the suburban agencies not used to serving a lower income population.  These groups may be unaware of how to best serve new LEP residents, for example. Public libraries may also be excellent partners in providing legal services in these locations. In many public libraries, legal aid organizations, and may be even court self help services, may find space where to hold clinics, workshops, and events providing unbundled or information and referral services on a routine basis. Just as creating medico-legal clinics and partnerships makes sense, creating suburban projects, around food banks and public libraries may be the best way to serve this those moving to the suburbs.  In some states this is already happening, for example in Illinois, Massachussets, and Kentucky. In Illinois for example, over 38 self help centers have been opened in collaboration with local libraries and courts, to help those without lawyers help themselves with online forms and similar resources and referrals.

Although I have never seen a survey or report of when legal aid offices were built or locations chosen, from my experience working in Philadelphia, Oakland, and San Francisco, and now Richland WA—most of the traditional legal services offices were opened in the early 70s through the mid 80s. Local offices were cut in the early 80’s and the flagship office of legal aid stayed downtown. Thus the core of lawyers and experts continue to provide services there, and are not following their clients to the suburbs.

The location of core legal services made some sense in in the 1980s as close to the city and court house, now I am not so sure. Suburban poverty is no longer oxymoron.

As poverty rises in the suburbs, legal non-profits and courts need to start measuring, mapping, and providing services where their client communities are, particularly as gas prices continue to rise, and as more of those living in the suburbs engage in work and lack access to affordable safe child care. Part of this analysis, office by office, should be looking at the price per square foot of legal services or court office space, and evaluating which services most be provided within walking distance of a court house, and which ones can be provided from remote locations, where the cost to rent, buy, and maybe even related costs, such as utilities, insurance etc. are lower than in the city.

For example, a centralized intake unit, is a service that can be done remotely. Does that service need to be close to the court house or at a high price per square foot location? If the answer is not, then move the core hotline operation closer to where the clients are and where the square footage and other costs are lower. Another question to ask is, how much would it cost in transportation reimbursements to serve suburban clients at a location convenient to their location?   If a clinic or remote intake office is created in the suburbs, how much would the program spend to cover transportation expenses for the lawyers from their core city office to the suburban remote locations?  Would the time out of the office spent commuting be large enough, where it may more sense to base the services where the clients are and the newer attorneys may be able to afford a home or find a safe school system for their children?

With better remote management tools, and communications tools such as go to meeting, skype, and Avaya Web Alive, and the google sharing tools, plus SharePoint, and server based case management systems, the group in the suburban area can stay pretty connected to the groups in the urban core.

Courts that have their heavy self help dockets in urban buildings, may also consider moving those filing stations and hearings to the suburban areas. If the civil services are no longer collocated with the criminal courts, the security costs may decline.  It may allow the court to cut costs, while at the same time create courts that are streamline to provide assistance to people without lawyers in a less expensive way. Rather than having these high self represented dockets co-located with criminal dockets,  courts and legal non profits should consider creating co-located services, where specialized self help courts/judges/clerks provide court decisions and services in the same environment  where legal aid and pro bono projects connect low income people with attorneys willing to provide the assistance for free. In addition to collocating and opening suburban justice centers, they can overlay the system with hotline advice and counsel services that cover the full region, as well as online forms and web chat tools, that allow those who can not go into the city or are in truly rural areas to access services remotely with these online services.

There is a question of staffing and retention here that needs to be raised. Many legal aid attorneys, perhaps the most experienced ones, live in the more urban core—that is where they made their career. For the newer starting attorneys, buying a house in the city may be too expensive, or the school options may be limited. So they may be already residing in bedroom communities outside of the urban core. For them commuting against traffic or living in a smaller density area may be an attractive option that allows them to buy a house and raise their children. For the more senior, urban based attorneys, if they are doing litigation or work that requires their daily presence in the city, their programs can continue supporting the offices if the outcomes are there.

For management the question should be, how long should I require my staff to commute to work? Is that the same amount that I expect my low income clients based in the suburbs to communite to see if they qualify for our services? The answer should never be the same. Client groups and vulnerable communities should never be required to commute or spend more resources to apply for legal services than legal aid staff or court staff are required to in order to provide them.

The location of an office, or a service, should not be based on historical reasons, if current and population changes no longer support those decisions of 40 or 30 years ago.   As programs struggle with how to cope with the intense funding pressures they will face in 2012 and beyond, it is a good time to start looking at office location, service delivery model, and start conversations with the courts and funders, to see if now is the time to relocate core services to where the clients are going: the suburbs. Maybe in some states and counties legal aid, libraries, and courts can start developing delivery models outside of the city core—and lead is in a direction that is more cost effective and accessible to those with less.  Richard recently posted a blog on the idea of mall based legal services. I concur with him: why not?


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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4 Responses to Claudia Johnson Blogs on Location of Services Where the Poor Now Are — in the Suburbs

  1. Claudia Johnson says:

    An update on suburban poverty. Rate of growth now estimated at 64%. 3 Million more are suburban poor than urban poor–yet the infrastucture and delivery of services remains mostly in the cities.

  2. Pingback: Guest Blogger Claudia Johnson on The Technology Future | Richard Zorza's Access to Justice Blog

  3. Joe Wheeler says:

    Claudia addresses a myriad of issues and ideas. I will comment on 2.
    Suburban Bricks and Mortar Locations: When considering bricks and mortar locations to serve the suburban poor, be sure leverage your transit system’s plans. One reason urban core has worked for many of your clients is because it requires only one bus/train ride to the hub – even from some of the furthest reaches of the community. Both clients and employees have an easier commute to the office near the hub than one that is another hop away.
    Suburban transit plans often establish similar hubs that focus rural/suburban road, freeway, and mass transit into a suburban commercial center. Look at your local transit planning as you set up suburban service centers. Look for the suburban hub that best supports the clients you are focusing on. Working with your community’s infrastructure is an oft overlooked tactic that pays dividends.
    Co-Hosting Electronic Services: In managing your on-line service offerings, consider an aggressive franchising strategy. This concept was introduced to me in our work with OASIS on the Transformational Government Framework Primer. An on-line franchising strategy involves preparing and positioning your on-line service offerings to:
    • Be an attractive addition to on-line offerings of potential service delivery partners.
    • Clearly project your organization’s identity and value.
    • Be easily discovered by your potential service delivery partners as a resource they can offer.
    • Be easily embedded in their on-line offerings.
    • Share client data when appropriate.
    • Include simple and clear operating agreements.
    This structure helps you establish broader reach the community you serve and do so with less work on your part.

    • Claudia Johnson says:

      Very good point about looking at the transportation plans. Putting on my advocate hat (sorry-can’t help it) it is important that legal aid groups keep and eye on those, because many times the plans don’t include the needs of isolated communities and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and other laws can be used succesfully to ensure that vulnerable linguistic and low income populations in the suburbs have access to public transporation also. would like to read more about the co-franchising you mention here–any links or cites that may be good starting points?

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