The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the need for access to legal couseling in the community. (Shutterstock)

Universal access to legal aid is the key to an equitable post-pandemic world

By Adrian Tirtanadi

As the rest of San Francisco began to shelter in place, Sarah (not her real name) was fleeing an abusive home. Sarah found safety temporarily staying with a family member in his apartment building until visitors were strictly banned due to an outbreak of COVID-19. Sarah and her children tried many resources, but were unable to find a secure place to stay, and were eventually forced to move back in with their abuser – putting all of them once again in danger. Unfortunately, Sarah’s story is not an isolated incident. Lack of direction, when faced with legal issues, is a relatable story for many San Franciscans unable to afford the help.

Before the pandemic, 85% of people with civil legal issues did not receive help. Now, reports of domestic violence, financial fraud, wage theft, and other crimes have been steadily increasing. This number will only grow when the eviction moratorium ends, and as lawmakers predict, we will begin to see a massive wave of displacement which will disproportionately affect communities of color.

For Sarah’s sake, and for the many San Franciscans who have yet to face the worst of what COVID-19 has to offer, we cannot allow this need to go unmet any longer. As we begin to rethink what we will be after COVID-19, it is also time for San Francisco to prioritize becoming the first city with universal access to legal services.

According to a new estimate by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, “three-quarters of [every] renter households affected by coronavirus-related job losses… include at least one Black, Latino, Asian or other person of color.” For the clients we serve, these new legal battles—on top of unemployment and health issues that are already rampant—have been difficult enough. For folks without legal representation, we fear that it will be too much to bear.

Universal access to legal help is simple: Anyone with a real legal need who cannot afford an attorney will get one, despite the type of legal help they may need. These services are crucial for defending communities of color from illegal actions by those who would take advantage of them, and enabling our most vulnerable residents to enforce their civil rights.

Though the City of San Francisco has made progress by increasing access to specific legal protections through funding allocations in the recent budget, policy and specific allocations are not enough to resolve this ongoing issue. Open Door Legal was co-founded in response to the gap between policy and action – helping people with different forms of legal issues who would otherwise be turned away due to capacity, affordability, or a lack of understanding about the legal system. Since then, we have worked on over 2,000 cases in San Francisco, including Sarah’s. Over the past months, we have helped her get an emergency restraining order to force her abuser out of her home, keep her family safe, and ensure a stable home for her children – ending a potential recurring cycle of abuse and trauma.

It is incumbent upon us as San Franciscans to make universal access a reality. Prioritizing this resource will not only prevent many families from losing their homes and livelihoods but will ensure we are moving our City forward in a way that is equitable and just while acknowledging the trauma experienced by those in our community. The time to act is now.

Adrian Tirtanadi is the founder of Open Door Legal.

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