Forging Forward 2022 is a series of six articles about organizations helping our region make progress on the significant issues challenging our friends and neighbors. The series is presented with the generous support of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
The #ONEDAY Critical Needs Campaign, a day of online giving to organizations doing vital work, is on August 9: mark your calendars and plan to be part of something great!
While the ideal of equal treatment under the law may still be an aspiration in the United States, there are organizations working to close the equity gaps in our legal process. Since 1966, Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS) works tirelessly to support our communities. Our low-income neighbors and those in under-resourced areas, in particular, can find support at NLS at little to no cost to help protect their legal rights around poverty law issues. Housing, family law, and protection from abuse are just some of the many issues that NLS can help address.
“We protect basic needs, like a civil and legal ER,” said Christine Kirby, NLS’s director of development. “When you’ve exhausted other services – like rental assistance and nutritional benefits – and you have nowhere else to turn, contact us,” she added.
Most of NLS’s clients are near or below the federal government’s definition of poverty. Women make up the majority of NLS’s clientele (74%), and the organization addresses the needs of a diverse range of racial and ethnic communities and age groups. 79% of its clients have children under 18 years old, meaning that family needs are a huge part of the work of the organization.
During the pandemic, the organization saw an uptick in need for unemployment, custody and family safety, and housing support. “We had a lot of cases involving housing because landlords were refusing to make repairs if people didn’t pay rent. We also were there on hand to help people navigate this system. Things bubbled up in different ways,” she added.
Legal issues involving bankruptcy, disability rights, consumer law, employment law and elder law are just a few of the areas NLS can help individuals and families with. Having the ability to expunge a criminal record so that someone can then access safe housing and find employment is one of many examples as to how the organization helps to restore the balance for people who may not otherwise have any legal support.
“None of our rights mean anything if we can’t enforce them,” said Kristine Bergstrom, executive director. With a staff of about 80 – higher than ever before – including 40 lawyers, as well as administrators, paralegals and social workers, the organization works to address the justice gap. NLS is also supported by 300 pro bono attorneys who primarily assist with PFAs – regardless of income. “We employ experts in poverty law,” added Bergstrom.
The most challenging aspect to their work is bringing awareness to communities that theNLS exists at free or little charge to them. “NLS offers a more robust availability of legal services, and at the same time we work hard to promote legal literacy so that we can help prevent a legal catastrophe from happening,” said Bergstrom.
Informing clients that justice should be a right and not a privilege means more investment in legal aid and preventative strategies. “We must look at the whole person and not as a victim of circumstance,” said Kirby. “We try to make it easier for people to access legal representation so that people know their rights.”
“NLS is the protector for the other services and rights that people have,” said Bergstrom. “You can get food stamps and housing, but nothing means anything if they can take it away and no one can take it to court to enforce your rights. We are the protector.”
To help keep legal services available to everyone in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Lawrence Counties in Pennsylvania, please consider donating during the Pittsburgh Foundation’s ONE DAY campaign to provide support to NLS on August 9. Together, we can create a just and more equitable world!
Get to know Neighborhood Legal Services here, and support its work to address our neighbors in need.
Read about other organizations doing vital work to help our neighbors in Western Pennsylvania by reading more in our Forging Forward series, presented with the support of The Pittsburgh Foundation:
STORY BY NATALIE BENCIVENGA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN MERRIMAN
Don’t miss a single fascinating thing!