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    Legal Assistance for the Elderly

    By Dr. Marcy Adelman–

    When Tom and William met, fell in love, and decided to live together in Tom’s apartment, they never thought about putting William on the lease. They lived together for 40 years. Then Tom passed away, and William was left living in their apartment by himself.

    When the landlord found out that Tom had died, he sent William a notice of increase of rent from $1000 to $4000. William, now 69 years old, could not find a way to meet the new rent. Fearful of losing his home and becoming homeless, William sought the assistance of Legal Assistance for the Elderly  (LAE). Fortunately, William was able to keep his home after LAE successfully represented him at the Rent Board.  

    William is just one of thousands of seniors and adults with disability for whom LAE attorneys and staff annually provide free legal assistance. This October, LAE is proudly celebrating 40 years of quietly and effectively providing pro bono legal assistance to such clients who are struggling to stay in their homes and in their community. 

    The majority of LAE clients, seventy-five percent, have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Almost half of LAE clients have incomes less than $995 per month. Further, LAE clients are as diverse as the city itself. The majority of LAE clients are people of color (53 percent) and women (also 53 percent). Twenty percent are non-English speakers and ten percent identify as LGBTQ. Eligible San Francisco residents must be 60 years of age and older, or adults ages 18 to 59 living with a disability. All eligible clients qualify for free services regardless of income.

    According to Tom Drohan, who has worked as an attorney at LAE for 26 years and is now the Director of Litigation, the housing situation for San Francisco seniors has only gotten worse. “Years ago,” he told me for the San Francisco Bay Times, “seniors would just move out once they received a 30-day notice. Now, because the cost of housing is so much higher, it is impossible to quickly find appropriate replacement housing they can afford. The threat of homelessness is more imminent.”

    Laura Chiera

    In 2016, LAE brought on a new Executive Director, Laura Chiera, who immediately went to work to grow LAE’s services in response to San Francisco’s senior housing crisis. LAE expanded their eviction defense team and added two new programs, LAE’s Access to Health Care program and a new collaboration with ALRP (AIDS Legal Referral Panel), to provide LGBTQ end of life planning services. In 2016–2017, LAE closed 930 matters, and by 2018–2019, the number of closed matters increased to 1575.

    I asked Laura about LAE’s collaboration with ALRP. She replied, “We like to collaborate on projects with other legal service providers because we bring the resources, expertise, and experience of both agencies together to benefit the most people. With this project, End of Life Planning for LGBTQ seniors, our collaboration with ALRP made sense. ALRP has a deep connection with the LGBTQ community. At ALRP, as new HIV treatments have helped lengthen the lives of their clients, seniors are a rapidly growing segment of their population. At LAE, we have over forty years working with seniors and the legal issues they face.”

    She continued, “Both organizations have a history of providing end of life planning for our clients. It is a clear example of how our organizations together can better provide a complete network of services for our clients by joining our resources and experience.”

    Bill Hirsh, ALRP’s Executive Director, had this to say about LAE and ALRP’s new program: “Our partnership has expanded needed services for vulnerable communities and exceeded our program goals. Still, we hope to do more. We want to make sure everyone has a basic will and advance health care directive in place.”

    LAE currently provides a wide net of free legal assistance in multiple areas. These include:

    • housing law that addresses eviction defense, illegal rent increases, and habitability;
    • physical and financial elder abuse prevention that includes protection from financial exploitation and illegal transfers of real property, as well as help with applications for restraining orders;
    • health advocacy that includes assistance with MediCal, Medicare, neglect in skilled nursing facilitates, and preservation of health services;
    • support in obtaining SSI and SSDI benefits;
    • help concerning consumer debt defense.

    I asked Laura about what changes are in LAE’s future. She replied, “We are focused on expanding our elder abuse program by expanding our capacity to address financial elder abuse. Adult Protective Services reports that, of the approximately 700 calls they receive each month, 30 to 40 percent are about financial elder abuse. LGBTQ seniors are particularly at risk for this type of abuse from a caretaker or someone who befriends them, as they are more likely to live alone and be isolated.”

    “We are also expanding our Access to Healthcare program,” she added. “This is a new program and we are continuing to grow it to meet the needs of our seniors. We are investing in these specific programs while we continue to grow our existing programs as the needs of San Francisco’s seniors grow. For example, we continue to receive the most calls for help with housing issues and Eviction Defense continues to be the largest practice group. This group currently has 6 attorneys and we would like to add more because we are not meeting the needs of all of the seniors who are facing evictions.”

    She continued, “LAE’s great strength is that we have a network of experienced, dedicated and determined attorneys who work collaboratively in different practice areas.  So, a senior can come to us facing eviction for non-payment of rent, but the underlying issue may be that they lost their income because of a problem with Medicare or benefits. In this instance, our Income Support/Benefits attorney can work with our Housing attorney to resolve the income issue and save the housing.”

    She concluded: “If you have a legal problem, we are here to help. 

    Dr. Marcy Adelman, Co-Founder of the nonprofit Openhouse, oversees the Aging in Community column. She is a psychologist and LGBTQI longevity advocate and policy advisor. She serves on the Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task Force, California Commission on Aging, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee.