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COVID, Legal Issues, and a Surge of Calls

Legal Aid Society Hawai‘i
July 28, 2020

Last March, as the pandemic was raging and Hawai‘i was all but shuttered, Cynthia Merrick found herself out of a job. Unemployment insurance was slow in coming, but she made rent with her savings and federal disaster relief money. Then suddenly, on May 1, Merrick’s landlord presented her with a two-month lease on the apartment she’d been renting month to month for the prior two years. Once expired, the lease wouldn’t be renewed, and Merrick would have to vacate. To Merrick, it seemed a tactic designed to circumvent Governor Ige’s proclamation prohibiting evictions during the pandemic. To make matters worse, the 69-year-old was recovering from injuries from a car accident. “I had no money, I was injured and it was the middle of a pandemic! I didn’t know what to do,” Merrick says. “I was thinking, ‘Should I pursue legal action or just move?’”

Merrick turned to the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i (LASH), a nonprofit that provides free legal services in a range of domains including family law, child welfare, elder law, immigration, housing, public benefits and others to Hawai‘i’s most vulnerable populations. Since the start of the pandemic, “We’ve seen a huge uptick in calls to our hotline about evictions and unemployment,” says LASH Executive Director Nalani Fujimori Kaina. If the caller qualifies—if they are at or below 125 percent federal poverty level—LASH “provides legal information and advice, and if they need representation, we’ll go to court,” says Fujimori Kaina. Problem is that many of the those affected by the pandemic don’t qualify; they’re in a category called Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE)—households that earn too much to qualify as “poor” but still cannot make ends meet. Think nursing assistants, office clerks, security guards and other occupations that are vital to Hawai‘i’s community and economy yet don’t earn sufficient income to cover necessities beyond food and rent, like health care and transportation.

With the help of a grant from the Hawai‘i Community Foundation’s Resilience Fund, LASH can assist more clients who can’t afford counsel but don’t fall below the requisite poverty level. Some of the HCF funds are helping LASH field the surge of calls to its hotline. They also helped expand LASH’s reach through programs like Text-to-Legal Services, a program that, for a time, distributed flyers to families at food distribution centers to help them access legal resources via text message. Founded in 1950, LASH is now celebrating seventy years helping the community, during a crisis when Hawai‘i’s residents have arguably never been more vulnerable. “It’s about community empowerment and making sure that people know they have rights,” says Fujimori Kaina. “We do it because we care about people and can help them have a voice.”

After consulting with a LASH lawyer, who agreed that her case had merit but that winning was not a certainty, Merrick chose to move rather than pursue legal action. She’s now much happier in her new home. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “I’m grateful I had someone to call when I was in a quandary. I made my decision more quickly, saving me time and headaches. People need to know about LASH; if they’re not in a position to pay for legal services, that support is invaluable.”

Legal Aid Society Hawaii