Written Testimony – disparity of impact of COVID-19 on minorities

Written Testimony submitted by: Barbara Finkelstein, CEO, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley in regards “Exploring solutions to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities.

To: The Joint Committee

Senate Standing Committee on Cities, Chair: Senator Robert Jackson,

Senate Standing Committee on Health, Chair: Senator Gustavo Rivera

Senate Standing Committee on Labor, Chair: Senator Jessica Ramos

Senate Standing Committee on Local Government, Chair: Senator James Gaughran

Senate Standing Committee on Women’s Issues, Chair: Senator Julia Salazar

Assembly Standing Committee on Cities, Chair: Assembly Member Edward Braunstein

Assembly Standing Committee on Health, Chair: Assembly Member Richard Gottfried

Assembly Standing Committee on Labor, Chair: Assembly Member Marcos Crespo

Assembly Standing Committee on Local Governments, Chair: Assembly Member Fred Thiele, Jr.,

Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Caucus, Chair: Assembly Member Tremaine Wright,

Task Force on Asian –Pacific Americans, Chair: Assembly Member Ron Kim

Task Force on Puerto Rican/Hispanic Americans, Chair: Assembly Member Maritza Davila

Task Force on Women’s Issues, Chair: Assembly Member Aravella Simotas,

Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony for the record on: Exploring solutions to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities.

Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) is a nonprofit law firm that has been providing free legal assistance since 1967 to people who are unable to afford an attorney when their basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, safety, and income, are at stake. We are an active and proud member of the New York Legal Services Coalition and collaborative partner in our local communities serving our clients.During the COVID-19 pandemic, LSHV’s essential services have been a lifeline to those who have been affected by the crisis and have nowhere else to turn. LSHV swiftly implemented technology at the start of the crisis that has enabled us to continue to seamlessly serve clients, though our offices at present are closed.

Black and Latino New Yorkers are dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white residents, and outbreaks have clustered in communities with higher poverty and a greater number of essential workers.COVID-19 has high lighted the long-standing in equalities faced by low-income individuals and communities of color who were already struggling to get by. In 2019, 28.5% of our clients identified as Black/African-American and 23.1% as Hispanic. Since we started tracking COVID-19 related requests for our services we have seen similar number with over 50% of these clients identifying as Black/African-American or Hispanic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, LSHV has been a legal emergency room for those affected by the crisis and have nowhere else to turn.This pandemic has been a devastating catastrophe for the many Americans who were already living on the edge of poverty and instability. Families who were just getting by are now facing unemployment, potential loss of housing, food insecurity, increased risk of domestic violence, and –for some,including those with a senior or medically fragile member–the urgent need for a will or a healthcare proxy to make medical decisions. Free civil legal services are essential to these people.

Since the start of the pandemic, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley has pivoted our services to focus on the most pressing needs brought on by COVID-19, including unemployment, domestic violence and housing. The courts remain open for emergency cases and LSHV has been on the front lines addressing those emergencies—e.g., helping domestic violence victims obtain orders of protection to keep them and their children safe, and preventing tenants’ unlawful eviction by landlords who illegally lock-out tenants and/or turn off essential services such as water.Between March 30 and April 29, 2020, we handled 187 housing cases alone that were related in some way to COVID-19.

We continue to provide legal services on issues that are not related to COVID, e.g., our advocacy on behalf of individuals with disabilities,because they remain urgent issues for people in low-income communities.

Low-income New Yorkers affected by the pandemic, including those who are recently unemployed because of it, will need help seeking justice in issue areas like unemployment, fore closure, eviction, bankruptcy and healthcare. As New York reopens, demand for legal help will most likely over whelm the existing civil legal services infrastructure. Legal Services program are an essential part of the economic solution for people in low income communities during recovery.

Pre-pandemic, over 500,000 individuals were eligible for our services in the seven counties we cover and we were under funded then, which meant that we had to limit our services to just advice in some cases and in other cases we had to turn people away. In2019, we assisted 11,427 individuals and impacted 33,500 house hold members.

Post-pandemic, it is abundantly clear that thousands of more Hudson Valley residents are eligible for our essential services, yet we face the real threat of state budget cuts. Low-income New Yorkers affected by the pandemic will need help seeking justice in issue areas like unemployment ,foreclosure, eviction, bankruptcy and healthcare.

Civil legal problems will spike in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, especially for those already struggling to make ends meet. The economic hardship caused by business closures and illness will create conflicts only the civil justice system can resolve.

Examples:

  • Missed rent and mortgage payments leading to eviction and mortgage default notices
  • Disputes over medical and consumer debt
  • People being wrongly denied public benefits that can keep their families afloat

Legal Services of the Hudson Valley is ready to move on behalf of our clients when the courts reopen broadly.

At the same time, we have implemented systems and procedures to ensure communities have seamless access to our services during recovery and in the likely event of a reemergence of the virus.

    • Unemployment benefits and other public benefits will be critical to helping low-income families remain stable now and recover financially after the pandemic ends. Legal Services can help low-income individuals and families identify and obtain the benefits available to help them to weather this crisis.
    • Countless Americans are missing paychecks due to lost jobs or are spending their limited resources for childcare due to school closings. This makes it difficult if not impossible for them to pay rent while also feeding their families. When the temporary moratoria on evictions and foreclosures end, our attorneys will be there to fight against the massive wave of eviction and foreclosure filings that will follow.
    • Experts expect incidents of domestic violence have increased, as a result of mandatory lock down. Reports of domestic violence tripled in China at the height of the pandemic, and police officers and survivor advocates across the United States fear the same will be the outcome here.
      • It’s critical for survivors of domestic abuse to know that legal help is available for individuals experiencing –or at risk of –violence in their homes. This help can include getting protective orders against abusers, custody and support orders and other relief.
      • Although many courts are currently closed, most courts remain open in some way for survivors of domestic violence to file for and obtain orders of protection.

We are more important now than ever before.

Thank you for your consideration.

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