Legal Aid in Times of Need: EJW Disaster Relief Fellow Joins CLSMF

When most people think of legal aid and what it encompasses, they often think of assistance provided to victims of domestic violence, veterans, and the elderly. Most people are unaware of the critical role legal aid plays in communities after a natural disaster occurs.

A natural disaster can destroy homes and displace families, leaving individuals in a state of panic. CLSMF has a long history of providing legal assistance to disaster survivors and alleviating some of their fears through civil legal aid.

Hurricane Irma heavily affected residents throughout Florida. Residents were forced to live without power for days. Fallen trees blocked streets, and damaged homes and cars. Low-income and minority communities are still struggling to recover.

Throughout CLSMF’s service area, poorer homeowners, who could not afford flood and storm insurance, were left with the tremendous cost of cleaning after the storm and, as a result, will face financial consequences for years. Two areas in CLSMF’s service area with the largest number of insurance claims were Orange and Osceola Counties.

Residents hit by the storm have demonstrated the need for help with a variety of related legal issues, such as: FEMA and other benefits; home repair contracts; replacement of wills and other important legal documents destroyed in the hurricane;  consumer protection matters; landlord-tenant and mortgage foreclosure issues; housing discrimination; and life, medical and property insurance claims.

Following Hurricane Irma, CLSMF staff traveled to mobile home parks to provide residents with recovery information, including contact information for FEMA. Staff set up mobile “pop-up” call centers staffed by volunteer attorneys who answered calls and assisted disaster victims with these various legal matters.

In addition to Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria had a tremendous impact on Central Florida. Of those migrating to the mainland United States, 42% permanently relocated to Florida (estimated at between 50,000-75,000 people). With the influx of Puerto Rican residents relocating to Florida, particularly in Orange and Osceola Counties, CLSMF provided information and assistance, including a presence at the Multi-Agency Resource Center in Orlando.

Puerto Rican residents relocating to Florida continue to face many of the same legal issues as Florida survivors of Hurricane Irma. Evacuees are also faced with a severe affordable housing shortage, particularly in Orange and Osceola counties where affordable housing was already stretched thin prior to the hurricanes. With substantially more demand than supply, rents are going up faster than wages (2017, October 29.  Orlando Sentinel).

As of early March, there were at least 1,000 Puerto Rican evacuee families and individuals still staying in Central Florida motel rooms paid for by FEMA (2018, March 27. Orlando Sentinel). With the housing shortage, concerns about housing discrimination are escalated. With many evacuees, there is a language barrier and a lack of knowledge of their housing rights, thus creating an environment ripe for discrimination.

To address these ongoing issues, directly related to the storm, CLSMF applied for a competitive grant from Equal Justice Works . We were awarded a grant to hire an attorney for two years, to provide legal assistance to survivors of Hurricane Irma and Maria throughout CLSMF’s 12-county service area.

CLSMF’s Disaster Relief fellow will work with current partners, as well as identify, build, and cultivate relationships with other agencies and organizations to assist with disaster recovery efforts in CLSMF’s service area. These new partnerships will be beneficial for offering services to current hurricane survivors and will be instrumental in future relief and recovery efforts. 

CLSMF’s pop-up clinic at Burr & Forman