UPLIFT project brings vital legal help to low-income clients, especially immigrants and refugees

  • UPLIFT takes vital Legal Aid help directly into low-income Lincoln neighborhoods
  • The project partners with community-based centers, especially those who help immigrants and refugees
  • Nebraska’s most vulnerable receive assistance and see an improvement in their lives and neighborhoods

Legal Aid has long known that too many low-income people simply don’t come to Legal Aid with their problems — they either don’t know that legal help is often the best solution or that they have a legal problem at all. They often don’t even know how to contact or find Legal Aid.

All low-income people face this dilemma  —  in fact, for them it’s estimated that nine out of ten legal problems simply go unaddressed, compounding their problems and deepening their poverty.

This is especially a challenge for immigrants and refugees, who face additional barriers in receiving legal assistance and access to the courts  — barriers of language, cultural differences and general knowledge.

Legal Aid of Nebraska created a program to directly attack these obstacles to justice, called UPLIFT: Using the Power of the Law to Influence and Foster Transformation.

Based in Lincoln, Nebraska, UPLIFT is a partnership between Legal Aid and community centers in high poverty neighborhoods that serve specific client populations.

For the past two years, UPLIFT Project Managing Attorney April Kirkendall has taken her legal skills directly to clients, staff and programs at the Good Neighbor Center, the Asian Community and Cultural Center and El Centro de las Americas.

UPLIFT is funded by the Woods Charitable Fund through its Breakthrough Initiative. The Woods Fund endorsed UPLIFT and its collaborative approach to bringing the power of the law into Lincoln’s low-income neighborhoods as a promising way to improve community conditions and life outcomes.

Taking the power of the law to those who need it most

By working through a close collaboration, UPLIFT provides a valuable legal service to those who need it most. Kirkendall works with center staff to identify and directly assist families and individuals with problems most affecting their path forward, including problems with housing, benefits, debt and family stability.

Kirkendall and Legal Aid then provide a full range of legal services, including representation. The type of assistance provided depends upon a client’s situation, the legal issue and Legal Aid’s resources. The services are free to those who qualify.

“There are many barriers to equal justice and the courts for low-income people,” Kirkendall said. “But it is even more challenging for people that have limited English language skills, that are new to the culture, that may have a fear of the police or the court process, you have to really work in a sensitive way. It’s a constant learning process.”  

“I had a client who spoke limited English and thought he would be able to communicate without an interpreter. This created problems because miscommunication in a court case can lead to big problems,” Kirkendall said.

She assisted the client with the paperwork for a self-help name change, but he missed his hearing.

“In our court system, attending a hearing is very important. If a person doesn’t show up, a judge might assume the person didn’t want to go forward with their case, or didn’t treat the case as important,” said Kirkendall.

But the court date was, indeed, important to the client. Also important to him was the health of his father. The client is the main care provider for his elderly parents and his father had been admitted to the hospital on the night before the client’s court date.

He called the court the morning of his appointment to let them know he couldn’t make it.

“By working through a close collaboration, UPLIFT provides a valuable legal service to those who need it most.”

To make matters worse, the client’s command of English was not sufficient enough to navigate the phone system to reach the bailiff. The judge dismissed the case and they had to start all over. Simple miscommunications due to language frequently cause problems for people that have big consequences.  

Getting the full picture and providing a path forward

Another client went to her court date and sat in the back of the courtroom. When the judge called the case, the client didn’t walk up to the front, either because they couldn’t hear or didn’t understand and missed their court date.

Kirkendall said it’s always worthwhile to talk with her clients and help them understand what to do when they go to court.

Before the pandemic, Kirkendall regularly worked with clients regularly in-person, but since has been providing assistance frequently through Zoom and regular phone calls. Her work involves providing help with benefits and employment-related issues to people in very economically depressed areas of the city.

UPLIFT community partners provide direct connection to clients

The Asian Community and Cultural Center serves Asian immigrants and refugees. They serve diverse communities speaking many languages, including Arabic and Vietnamese. “We are also working with a large group of Karen people [an ethnic group from Myanmar]. So, they help a lot of different populations.”

Kirkendall also works with El Centro de las Americas. They serve the Spanish-speaking population. She also works with The Good Neighbor Center that has programs for people from the Middle East. “Most of our clients are either Arabic-speaking or sometimes Kurdish.”

She is helped by advocates who are a hybrid of equal-parts interpreter, social worker, and assistant. The advocates make the work possible.

Before the pandemic, an advocate might assist with something like going with the client to an appointment at the Social Security Administration office.

The job also requires assisting people experiencing domestic violence.

“These are very vulnerable people. They may not speak English. It may be difficult for them to access other types of domestic violence services.”

She has assisted with protection orders in cases where a person’s movement is being monitored by their spouse. “Sometimes the Asian Center is the only place their spouse will allow them to go.”

Kirkendall said the pandemic has greatly affected these centers and has been very disruptive. Before the pandemic, she had set appointment hours each week at each center. Now, she works with the advocates to set up individual appointments.

The centers have done a great job of continuing to serve people over the past year. Still, she knows there are people that may need help but don’t have the option of just walking to the centers like before.

“It’s actually quite sad when you think about the number of people who relied on our help but might have difficulty connecting with us due to the pandemic.”  

“These are very vulnerable people … it may be difficult for them to access domestic violence services … sometimes the Asian Center is the only place their spouse will allow them to go.”

For now, Kirkendall uses phone or video calls to connect with clients. “We want to be mindful of everyone’s health and safety. But there are times where I need clients to sign paperwork. And like today, I have a check from a landlord for a client, and I’m going to meet with them in person.”

UPLIFT ensures all are served through Center for Legal Immigration Assistance (CLIA)

A key part of UPLIFT is the critical role attorney Meghan Sonenberg of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance (CLIA) plays in the project.

“We brought CLIA on board so that no matter someone’s legal status, we could provide services.” CLIA was the first nonprofit in Nebraska to receive a U-Visa approval for immigrant victims of domestic violence. Kirkendall regularly interacts with and collaborates with Sonenberg.

Kirkendall is thankful for her partnership with Sonenberg. “Meghan’s mindset is ‘what can we do to help this person?’”

 Kirkendall says their work with clients involves a lot of phone calls and paperwork. They help clients communicate with government agencies and assist clients with paperwork needed for court.

“It may not be everything, and it may not fully resolve their problem, but we are focused on doing what we can to help the client achieve the outcome they need. We don’t want to turn clients away just because they don’t check a box of the four main areas we focus on. We want them to have a conversation with the person to see what we can do to help them.”

“Meghan’s mindset is ‘what can we do to help this person?’”

 “We want to help them as best we can and remove barriers to fairness and justice. A big part of that is empowering clients through understanding their rights and the court process,” Kirkendall said.  

To learn more about UPLIFT, visit https://www.legalaidofnebraska.org/how-we-help/programs-and-projects/uplift

Jen Litton, Development Coordinator at Legal Aid of Nebraska, is the author of this article. Milo Mumgaard, Executive Director of Legal Aid of Nebraska, also contributed to this article.

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