Our fortieth year of service to low-income Texans has yielded another series of memorable litigation and heart-felt stories. As we end this year and look forward to another, we fondly look back at some of the top stories of the year and the impact they have had on TRLA.
Hungry & Waiting
Just before the holidays of 2009, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid filed a lawsuit against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission regarding the untimely processing of food stamp applications. In some cases, Texas families had been waiting more than six months for decisions on their applications when state law required it be done within thirty days. Over the last year, TRLA was joined by Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and Lone Star Legal Aid in the battle. The lawsuit was also expanded to argue that the entire food stamp application process illegally discourages families from getting the help they desperately need by failing to provide correct information, running a faulty communication system, and establishing road blocks at every step in the process.
Throughout the year, HHSC claimed to both the media and legislature that they were improving the system. But TRLA questioned the genuineness of the improvements as we kept meeting families struggling to put food on the table. The lawsuit continues to move forward and updates will be posted on the TRLA Times website.
Flooding Along the Border
When it first began, experts were predicting that the 2010 hurricane season would be legendary. For residents of south and central Texas, the hurricane season was not defined by large devastating hurricanes, but rather by persistent rain that flooded neighborhoods and left many Texans with damaged homes. With low-income communities faced with most of the damage, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA)’s disaster assistance team was called into action to help our most vulnerable.
After heavy flooding in border areas including the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, Eagle Pass, and Del Rio, TRLA attorneys with our disaster assistance team toured damaged neighborhoods and identified communities that were particularly impacted by the flooding. TRLA’s disaster assistance hotline prepared for phone calls from people seeking legal assistance and a media campaign aimed to educate people about their legal rights. By the end of June, more than 100 families had contacted TRLA for help with their legal rights related to the storms.
As Texas began receiving federal disaster declarations and residents became eligible for FEMA benefits, TRLA’s disaster team began a new mission – to help people apply for those benefits and appeal decisions they felt were incorrect. Throughout the summer, TRLA continued to provide support to low-income residents in need.
El Paso Community Opens New Volunteer Opportunity
For years Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has run successful pro bono programs throughout the state, mostly using the well-known Community Justice Program (CJP) model. In mid-2010, with the funding and support of the State Bar of Texas and El Paso Bar Foundation, TRLA launched a new extension of its CJP model in El Paso.
The Community Justice Program (CJP) aims to help alleviate the high demand for free legal services by encouraging private attorneys to volunteer their time to help those in desperate situations. Because there is only one legal aid attorney for every 12,000 low-income Texans, TRLA has to turn away one-third of the people that ask for help. The Community Justice Program tries to eliminate that problem locally.
The CJP began operations with recruitment sessions and an inaugural clinic held in June. At the clinics, low-income residents are matched with pro bono attorneys who guide them through the legal process and stay with them until their issues are resolved.
Celebrating Ten Years of Fighting Domestic Violence
For the last ten years, TRLA’s Legal Alliance for Survivors of Abuse (LASA) program has worked with partner domestic violence shelters to ensure that adults trying to escape their abusers have access to the legal remedies they need from the moment they turn to a shelter for help. This May more than thirty nonprofit organizations serving victims of domestic violence came together to celebrate a decade of partnerships and volunteer efforts from private attorneys at the Tenth Annual Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cross-Training Conference.
The conference marked a significant milestone for the LASA program. What started out as a partnership between TRLA and a handful of partner domestic violence shelters is now viewed as a model nationwide for how legal aid organizations can serve victims immediately and effectively.
Helping Taxi Drivers Fight
When people think about low-income wage earners, they do not often think about taxi drivers. But in February Texas RioGrande Legal Aid released a study of the Austin-area taxi industry that showed that, in fact, taxi drivers make only $2.75 an hour.
The study – Driving Austin, Driving Injustice – was the first of its kind in the state of Texas and examined the practices that govern the more than 600 taxi cabs that serve the Austin area, driver working conditions, and the industry atmosphere. TRLA’s LAMP Project spent more than two months interviewing Austin taxi drivers and researching current city regulations affecting the industry.
Not only did the study find that taxi drivers, on average, make only $2.75 an hour, but the study also found that drivers work about 70 hours a week just to make ends meet, do not have employee benefits, and do not have a voice in the regulations that govern their industry. The study was part of a series of tools that Austin taxi drivers used to lobby for fairer rules and regulations through the city of Austin. TRLA continues to work with them on their labor issues.