Foreclosures Overwhelm Legal Aid Programs Half of all poor people seeking help to stave off foreclosures "are being turned away at the door," an official with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association estimates. The programs, which offer free or low-cost counsel, don't have enough staff to meet demand.
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Foreclosures Overwhelm Legal Aid Programs

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Foreclosures Overwhelm Legal Aid Programs

Foreclosures Overwhelm Legal Aid Programs

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For someone facing foreclosure, an attorney can make all the difference. Lawyers can help people stay in their homes. Everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a lawyer, whether they can afford one or not, but in civil cases such as foreclosures, there's no right to an attorney. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, some people are being kicked out of their homes who might have been able to stay if they'd had legal help.

ARI SHAPIRO: Sarah Bolling is a Legal Aid attorney in Atlanta, and Jenny McCaslin is her client. Ms. McCaslin is 71 years old. She bought a house more than 30 years ago, and today, it's falling apart.

Ms. SARAH BOLLING (Legal Aid Attorney): It's cold in there, I can imagine. Is that right, Ms. McCaslin?

Ms. JENNY MCCASLIN: Yes, it is. It is very cold in here.

Ms. BOLLING: Because some of the dry wall is even cracked. In her bedroom, you can almost see through to the outside.

SHAPIRO: When it rains, the water comes in to the house. The siding is peeling off.

Ms. BOLLING: There was basically a contractor who knocked on her door and said, we can do repairs for you, and we can arrange the financing.

SHAPIRO: The contractor worked for a mortgage broker who refinanced the house three times. The last mortgage was for more than $100,000. Her home was appraised at 60,000. The contractor sent repairmen who didn't do the job right. Jenny McCaslin's home was still leaking. Only now, she was getting more than a thousand dollars a month in bills. And what's your monthly income, if I may ask?

Ms. MCCASLIN: I get 815 a month. How can you do it? I don't want them to take my house from me because my husband had bought this house for me and paid for it before he deceased and everything, and so, I had to do something.

SHAPIRO: McCaslin's son told her about Legal Aid. She went to their offices and met Sarah Bolling.

Ms. BOLLING: The lender ended up taking $17,000 in full satisfaction of this loan because of our efforts with Ms. McCaslin. And as she said, she's getting repairs done.

SHAPIRO: So Jenny McCaslin stays in her house. For her, there's a happy ending. But for many others like her, there is no legal help.

Ms. NAN HEALD (Director, Pine Tree Legal Assistance): We are definitely not helping everybody.

SHAPIRO: Nan Heald is director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a program in Maine.

Ms. HEALD: We have seen both a tremendous increase in court filings and a tremendous increase in demand for our services.

SHAPIRO: Therefore, closure case load has doubled each year since 2006. Their budget has not. In fact, Heald studied court findings and realized her staff was only involved in about 10 percent of the foreclosure filings in Maine. And nationally...

Mr. DON SAUNDERS (Director, Civil Legal Services, National Legal Aid and Defender Association): Half the people that are coming into the office at least are being turned away at the door.

SHAPIRO: Don Saunders is director of Civil Legal Services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. That statistic, about half the people getting turned away at the door, does not count those who never make it legal aid offices.

Mr. SAUNDERS: The other side has a lawyer, the bank, and the foreclosure process is being brought by a lawyer, and the playing field is clearly not a level one.

SHAPIRO: But with thousands of people facing foreclosure across the country, one could argue that if every one of those people gets a lawyer, the system is going to be so bogged down and gummed up with litigation that it's not going to do anybody any good.

Mr. SAUNDERS: Well, kicking a family out on to the street is not an easy or simple thing to do. One lawyer negotiating with the bank might actually save time and save money.

SHAPIRO: And kicking people out in to the street has its own ripple effects. Karen Sargeant is with the Legal Services Corporation. That's the government office that funds legal aid programs.

Ms. KAREN SARGEANT (Vice President for Programs and Compliance, Legal Services Corporation): You're taking people who could be active members of a community, and they're disappearing away from that community.

SHAPIRO: So, everyone suffers when people lose their homes. Lawyers can keep people from losing their homes, but there isn't enough money for everyone to have a lawyer.

Ms. SARGEANT: That's it in a nutshell. Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: That must kill you?

Ms. SARGEANT: It does. It does.

SHAPIRO: So, how does Karen Sargeant keep from feeling overwhelmed? She says, you celebrate the successes that you have. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: Coming up, memories of the Great Depression. In these tough times, we'll hear from those who lived through some of America's darkest hours. That's next on All Things Considered.

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