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Bridging the Civil Justice Gap

GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic

When Gary woke up in a Daly City hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage, a hospital administrator informed him that his car had been towed. Unable to leave his hospital bed, Gary called the tow company to explain why he was unable to move his car. But despite explaining that he was not only hospitalized but homeless, and that his car was also his residency, Gary was told that his car would not be released until he paid $9,000 in fees.

This was in part due to San Francisco’s 72-hour law, which says that all vehicles parked on city streets can remain parked in the same spot for only three days in a row, at which point the city is permitted to tow the car without notice.

Gary spent the holidays hospitalized, trying to focus on recuperating, while his phone rang incessantly with demands to pay mounting tow costs—costs that were rapidly rising with exorbitant storage fees for every day his car remained impounded. By the time Gary was finally released from the hospital, the tow company had sold his only home at a lien sale, leaving him without any shelter or his belongings.

A civil justice gap

Across the United States, minor civil infractions like Gary’s are derailing the lives of low-income people who lack the savings necessary to cover an unanticipated expense. And few cities provide legal resources to support people who can’t afford a lawyer or other legal costs.

Legal resources are more readily available for some specific areas of the law, such as immigration; and in criminal cases, a defendant has a constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney. But what does a low-income person do in child custody cases, or evictions, or when they return to their parking place to find out their car has been impounded?

Founding the Unconditional Legal Clinic

James Lin, GLIDE’s senior director of mission and spirituality, recalls the day in September 2013 that “a preppy-looking white guy wearing a polo shirt” walked into GLIDE and introduced himself as Charlie.

At the time, Charlie Crompton worked as a lawyer at one the largest law firms in the city, Latham & Watkins. But Charlie was looking to help a clientele that rarely entered the privileged space of his office building. Charlie’s interest in public service led him to the Tenderloin, where he saw the need and the opportunity to integrate legal resources with the wide range of social services offered at GLIDE.

Word quickly spread that there was a trustworthy lawyer at GLIDE who got things done, for free. By leveraging his extensive legal network, Charlie was able to streamline the on-site, no-cost, drop-in legal services that would become the Unconditional Legal Clinic.

The free legal counsel and resources folded perfectly into GLIDE’s holistic approach to services, which provides loving non-judgmental support for people seeking to obtain and maintain the essentials of life—housing, jobs, benefits and family—amid the hardship of poverty and related challenges.

Like other services provided at GLIDE, the Unconditional Legal Clinic was born out of a need in the community, and it grew organically in its commitment to that need.

A new partnership

When, in 2014, Governor Jerry Brown tapped Charlie to be a superior court judge, the future of the Unconditional Legal Clinic seemed uncertain.

But Charlie is a creative problem-solver, and he once again turned to his network for possibilities. Having sat on the board of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), Charlie went to them with a proposal and ultimately secured the collaboration of LCCR pro bono attorneys, supported in its administrative costs by two years of funding from his old firm of Latham & Watkins.

GLIDE was now a secure bridge for immigrants whose first language might not be English, for refugees who may not know their rights, and for low-income communities of color in need of legal guidance and support, all of whom could benefit from connecting with lawyers committed to protecting and advancing the civil rights of anyone and everyone in need.

Representation and dignity

“It has been very healing,” says Bréyon Austin, who studied Tribal and Criminal Law in Albuquerque before joining LCCR and who for the past year has been working at GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic. “I grew up homeless and will always feel that I am part of this community. I wanted to use my law degree to support people in the same situations I myself experienced.”

This is the uniquely reciprocal nature of GLIDE’s Legal Clinic: not only does it provide members of the community with the legal services they need, but it also offers lawyers an immersive experience into the reality of impoverished communities in San Francisco, people struggling to navigate through a confusing and often unjust maze of legal barriers.

For low-income people fighting to survive on the fragile footings of poverty, the results of minor violations can be devastating, especially considering how quickly they tend to snowball.

A vehicle tow, for instance, can mean the loss of transportation, or shelter, or both, which can lead to loss of employment as well as the loss of access to education and medical care. Not only is retrieving a car from a tow lot expensive, but it is also incredibly time-consuming. And for each day the car remains impounded, further fees accrue, as in Gary’s case.

In 2018, Gary visited GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic and connected with an attorney from LCCR, who provided him with the legal assistance and representation he needed to file a claim against the City and the tow company.

The result was justice: The judge ruled that the city should not have towed and sold his vehicle considering his inability to comply with the 72-hour parking law.

Of the more than 200 clients served per year by the clinic, more than half are experiencing homelessness and the majority are people of color over the age of 50.

Bréyon says the most common issues she hears about are City confiscation of personal belongings and housing-related matters. For housed clients, she deals with everything from eviction prevention to landlord harassment and uninhabitable living conditions in apartments infested with rodents and mold, and lacking running water, heat and electricity.

“The work is intense because it is bearing witness to injustice,” admits Bréyon. “But the healing comes from knowing I can help people achieve what they need with the representation and dignity they deserve.”

Bréyon Austin, Clinic & Pro Bono Coordinator at LCCR

The Unconditional Legal Clinic, a program of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice, is open on a drop-in basis, Monday and Thursday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm, at GLIDE.