(Photo by Tony Abraham)
The United States was founded on the restoration of rights, and Americans have historically taken pride in the civil liberties and individual freedoms we offer the people who live here.
But the country hasn’t always done a great job of making sure people know how their rights can protect them. Especially if they’re underprivileged.
Creating access to legal aide is no easy task in low-income communities lacking native legal services organizations. Strategic partnerships have proven to be a popular approach to the problem, specifically between legal professionals and community-based healthcare providers.
That’s the type of integrated model at play in Kensington, where, for the past four months, multi-service community center Congreso de Latinos Unidos has housed a young Community Legal Services (CLS) fellow named Seth Lyons.
"Most clients are at a stage in their life where all they want to do is go back to work."
Lyons is there to expunge criminal records and help fight wage theft in Kensington’s Latino community, where he’s known as “Patricio” (his middle name is Patrick). He’s opened over 20 cases so far. Most are expungement cases.
“Most clients are at a stage in their life where all they want to do is go back to work and be productive members of society after they’ve paid their debt, or weren’t even convicted of anything,” he said.
The neighborhood where Congreso is situated has one of the highest arrest rates in the city, said Lyons, but nobody was coming to CLS for expungement services. So, he visits the nonprofit once a week — he even has his own office space — and builds trust within the community by doing presentations during programmed workshops such as breastfeeding classes. He hands out informational flyers with his contact information on numbered vouchers.
Folks who are interested in seeing Lyons take their voucher to their case manager to set up an appointment. That way, he’s able to track all the cases he’s opened and the consults he’s given on various legal issues.
Right now, Lyons is only working with Congreso constituents. Between the expungement cases and fighting for immigrant restaurant workers, home health aides and truck drivers all suffering from wage theft, he’s not looking for any more clients. The fellowship is a year-long, and he’s already got his hands full.
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He’s hoping to produce outcomes that will prove this kind of integrated service model for low-income and immigrant communities can be expanded and replicated.
“I think a lot of clients don’t know their rights. A lot of people don’t know what they can do to solve these problems,” he said. “Even though there are protections in place, a lot of people don’t know what those rules are and where they can go for help.”