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College students, seniors and immigrants miss out on food stamps. Here’s why.

A college student in Fresno who struggles with hunger has applied for food stamps three times. Another student, who is homeless in Sacramento, has applied twice. Each time, they were denied.

A 61-year-old in-home caretaker in Oakland was cut off from food stamps last year when her paperwork got lost. Out of work, she can’t afford groceries.

…”On a human level, what that means is that we continue to allow Californians to go without food,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

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Western Center’s 2019 Budget & Legislative Victories

16 Western Center bills were signed by Governor Gavin Newsom this year, marking huge wins for California. Of note are two renter protection bills, AB 1482, now one of the nation’s most expansive anti-rent gouging and just cause for eviction laws, and SB 329, which prohibits discrimination against housing voucher holders.

For health care, SB 464 will require perinatal health providers to undergo implicit bias training to address the maternal mortality rate for black women in California, which is 4-5 times higher than it is for white women. For financial security, SB 616 outlaws the ability of debt collectors to drain people’s bank accounts, leaving them without funds for necessary day-to-day expenses. These legislative victories are in addition to big wins achieved in the state budget earlier this year.

See the full suite of Western Center’s 2019 budget and legislative victories below!

New Study Finds Youth Fee Repeal Law Led to Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in Relief for California Families

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 Almost two years after implementation of Senate Bill 190, more work remains to bring debt-free justice to youth and families across California

SACRAMENTO—California counties have stopped collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from vulnerable families after the passage of Senate Bill 190 (Mitchell, Lara), which abolished fees in the juvenile legal system, according to a new study released today by UC Berkeley Law School’s Policy Advocacy Clinic. Some counties, however, continue to charge prohibited fees to families and to collect past fees. The full report is available online here.

According to San Mateo County resident Sonya N., “It was a blessing when San Mateo stopped collecting thousands of dollars in fees they had charged me from my son’s juvenile case. As a single parent with two kids, it was a real hardship to make that payment every month. When the County cleared the old fees, it was less of a struggle to buy gas or pay for my family’s basic needs.”

However, not all parents and guardians live in counties that ended fee collection. San Diego County parents Andrew and Christina S. were charged more than $15,000 in juvenile fees when their adopted son got into trouble: “We were thrilled when we learned that SB 190 was passed, but it did nothing about the fees that we were charged for one of our six children we adopted through the County foster care system. Instead of applying the tenets of SB 190, the County accelerated collection efforts with a judgement, lien, and now threats to garnish our wages. We would hope that all families with juvenile fees can get relief.”

The clinic conducted the study on behalf of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, which sponsored SB 190. Starting January 1, 2018, SB 190 repealed county authority to charge fees in the juvenile legal system. The legislation also ended several fees for young people ages 18-21 in the criminal (adult) legal system.

Researchers found that all counties stopped charging new juvenile fees before the law went into effect. Although SB 190 did not waive previously assessed fees, 36 counties voluntarily discharged or stopped collecting them, relieving hundreds of thousands of families of more than $237 million.

According to study co-author Stephanie Campos-Bui, “The majority of counties have taken it upon themselves to end the collection of hundreds of millions of dollars in previously assessed fees. Such widespread relief is unprecedented in the history of criminal justice reform and can serve as a model for debt-free justice in other states.”

Counties have gone beyond the requirements of SB 190 in other important ways: one county refunded families who made payments on unlawfully charged fees, some counties stopped charging fees not repealed by SB 190, and three counties repealed fees in the adult system.

In spite of significant progress, the study found that some counties are violating SB 190 by pursuing prohibited juvenile fees through child support orders and by charging young people ages 18-21 in the adult system. According to Western Center on Law & Poverty Legislative Advocate Jessica Bartholow, “With other legal services providers across the state, we are actively monitoring and addressing these ongoing violations. We expect counties to comply fully with SB 190.”

Twenty-two counties are still pursuing over $136 million in previously assessed juvenile fees from California families. Of these counties, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Tulare, and Stanislaus are collecting more than 95% of the total statewide. San Diego, home to Mr. and Mrs. S., is still collecting $58 million from families.

In light of these findings, the researchers recommend that counties stop assessing all remaining SB 190 fees, voluntarily end collection of previously assessed fees, and notify affected youth and their families of the law change. The researchers also recommend that the state oversee local child support compliance with SB 190 and pass legislation to make all previously assessed SB 190 fees unenforceable and uncollectable.

In response to the study, SB 190 co-author Senator Holly J. Mitchell said, “We can all be proud of the progress that we have made, but it is clear we can do better. I look forward to continued work with impacted youth and their families until all fee collection is ended statewide.”

Congressman Tony Cárdenas of California’s 29th Congressional District also said the study’s findings were a call to action: “We need to end the cruel practice of collecting fees from youth that keep children in jail and American families in debt. I am proud to have introduced the Eliminating Debtor’s Prison for Kids Act and to be leading the Congressional call to action to end these unfair fees. I urge my colleagues in Washington and legislators in my home state of California to join me in my fight to ensure that our youth have a second chance at a better life.”

CONTACTS:

Stephanie Campos-Bui, Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, (510) 643-4624, scamposbui@law.berkeley.edu

Jess Bartholow, Legislative Advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty, (916) 282-5119, jbartholow@wclp.org

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Power outages hit some of state’s poorest communities hard

PG&E’s unprecedented blackouts over the past month have hit especially hard in some of Northern California’s poorest communities, stripping electricity from hundreds of thousands of people who can least afford to be without it, according to state data reviewed by The Chronicle.

…Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said prolonged outages can create a domino effect. Businesses close and people lose their paychecks. Schools or day cares close and people are forced to pay more for child care, or meals that would ordinarily be served at school. Those increased and unexpected costs can threaten a family’s ability to pay for rent or medical needs.

“Disaster is hard for anyone to get through, but it could be the last straw for people living in poverty,” Bartholow said.

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Western Center Responds to USDA “Information Analysis” on how proposed changes to SNAP eligibility will impact children

On October 15, 2019, the USDA issued additional information about the number of children who would be cut from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) as a result of the Administration’s Notice of Proposed Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Federal Register posted a new “Information Analysis” about the impact, stating: “The agency is extending the comment period to provide the public an opportunity to review and provide comment on this document as part of the rulemaking record.”

Nothing about the new information posted changes the fact that the proposed revision to SNAP regulations are deeply flawed and problematic, bypass congressional authority, and would increase hunger among low-income Californians.

Our full comments on the new information are available here.

 

Riverside County increases number of people receiving general relief subsidies by 3,900% in past year

In the past year, Riverside County increased the number of people to whom it provided “general relief” by 3,900% in response to a lawsuit filed by three California social justice law firms which argued the county’s system made the cash assistance program hard to access for indigent individuals, particularly those who were homeless.

The $3 million county-funded, state-mandated general relief program (also called general assistance) provides temporary financial assistance to adults who don’t have access to other assistance programs such as Social Security income, disability assistance, unemployment benefits or other programs. The program generally helps single adults who don’t fit into the programs that come with age, disability or family qualifiers.

…“In some cases, folks were telling us they would go to the social services office to apply and would be told by workers that if you are homeless you aren’t even eligible,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior attorney from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

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Colleges Should Not Have to Have Food Pantries

One of the first lessons Jalyn Wharton learned her freshman year at Kennesaw State University was how to stretch a pizza so it would feed her for a week. It wasn’t the only time she’d had to ration food. When she was in high school, her family became homeless and Wharton would sometimes eat less to make sure her younger siblings got enough. Even as her family bounced between hotels and friends’ houses, Wharton stayed focused on school. Everyone told her education was her path out of poverty. She finished high school with honors and was thrilled to get into Kennesaw State, a research institution with 35,000 students near Atlanta, Georgia.

…“We have been doing a better job of making sure low-income children feel like college is a place for them,” said Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Poverty Law Center in California. “Maybe so much so that it’s a real shock when they get here and find out that it isn’t.”

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PRESS RELEASE: With legal settlement, Riverside County now providing General Assistance to over 4,000 individuals in deep poverty, up from 100 in 2018

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Changes to county policy means thousands in Riverside County, particularly adults experiencing homelessness, can now access vital cash benefits

 

Riverside, CA – A settlement has been reached with Riverside County in Isabel Bojorquez, et al. v. County of Riverside, et al., a lawsuit filed on behalf of three General Assistance (GA) recipients to change policies under the county’s GA program. GA is the program of last resort for the poorest Californians – indigent residents who cannot qualify for other benefit programs. 

 

Western Center on Law & Poverty, Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc., and the Public Interest Law Project are the attorneys on the case.

 

Before the case began, roughly 100 people in Riverside County received GA each month. In the time since litigation began in 2018, that number has increased to more than 4,000 people each month, according to the latest available data.

 

The settlement includes an agreement by the county to end its prior illegal policy limiting homeless recipients to six months of housing assistance payments. The county will now only end housing assistance payments where the recipient declines an offer of available shelter without a good reason. 

 

“People experiencing the kind of poverty that qualifies them for General Assistance usually have little to no resources. General Assistance can be vital for a person’s ability to rent a room or find a motel where they can sleep,” said Alex Prieto, an attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty.

 

Riverside County will issue guidance to workers and train them on the county’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. The county will also review previous applications for a limited period and issue retroactive payments to anyone denied under the former policy.

 

“I’m hopeful that this outcome in Riverside will prompt other counties to revisit their policies and approach to General Assistance as well,” said attorney Anthony Kim of Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. 

 

These changes come after others the county made in response to litigation pressure, and across two previous mediation sessions. To date, the county has raised GA grant amounts, raised resource limits, simplified application processes, issued guidance regarding due process, and ended a policy that required employable recipients to re-apply for benefits every month, even though their circumstances were unchanged.

 

“Increasing General Assistance across the board in California counties, and simplifying the process for people to access it, could provide a significant stop-gap in our state’s battle against homelessness and increasing poverty,” said Lauren Hansen, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Project. “This is a good example of the kinds of things counties can do, ideally without the need for litigation, to curb deep poverty in their jurisdictions.”

 

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About Western Center on Law & Poverty

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

 

About Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. (ICLS)

Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. (“ICLS”) is the largest non-profit legal aid organization in the Inland Empire with offices located in Riverside, Indio, San Bernardino, Victorville and Rancho Cucamonga.  ICLS is dedicated to securing justice and equality for low-income people in the communities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, through litigation, counsel, advice, and community education.

 

About the Public Interest Law Project (PILP)

Since 1996, the Public Interest Law Project (PILP) has provided crucial litigation and advocacy support to local legal services and public interest law programs throughout California. The primary purposes of PILP are to assist local legal services programs in rendering legal services to lower income persons who are financially unable to afford legal assistance, and to provide technical assistance, training, research and litigation support to public interest law programs and community based organizations on law and policy issues related to housing and community development, public benefits, health, education, welfare, and civil, consumer and economic rights.

Homeless Man Challenges LA Vehicle Towing Policies in Court

A homeless man is challenging in court the city of Los Angeles’ practice of towing vehicles as a mechanism for collecting debt.

Joseph Safuto’s amended Los Angeles Superior Court petition, filed Tuesday, maintains the city should not be able to tow vehicles without a public-safety justification solely because of lapsed registration. The court action also takes to task the way the city conducts towing hearings.

…The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Western Center on Law & Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California are representing Safuto.

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PRESS RELEASE: L.A. Man Sues City After Car Towed and Sold Over Two Parking Tickets

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Car Auctioned Despite Man’s Participation in Community Assistance Parking Program

LOS ANGELES — A person experiencing homelessness, Joseph Safuto, has sued the City of Los Angeles, challenging the city’s practice of towing vehicles as a mechanism for collecting debt – in this case two unpaid parking tickets that resulted in a lapsed registration. The lawsuit challenges the city’s practice of towing vehicles without a public safety justification solely because of lapsed registration, and it challenges the way the city conducts towing hearings.

“I put a lot of effort into getting the car registered, but I had those two parking tickets that were holding it up. I was trying to work them off through CAPP, and they towed it anyway,” said Safuto. “I was already struggling to get me and my daughter housing and to get on my feet again. When my car was towed, it pushed me into a deeper hole, not just financially but also emotionally. It was debilitating, and all of this for two parking tickets. It’s wrong to leverage a small debt to the city to take people’s property.”

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California are representing Safuto.

“At a time when the city should be focusing its resources on moving people out of homelessness, Mr. Safuto’s case illustrates how the City’s continued reliance on law enforcement and punitive measures actually perpetuate the cycle of poverty,” said Shayla Myers, senior attorney at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Safuto suffers from mobility disabilities that prevent him from working. He used his vehicle to visit his nine-year-old daughter, attend medical appointments, and run errands. 

In April 2019, the Los Angeles Police Department ordered Safuto’s vehicle towed, even though the car was not impeding traffic or impacting public safety in any way. The justification for the tow was that his registration had expired, but he was prevented from re-registering his vehicle, even though he had paid the registration fee. The city had a hold on his registration because he had not paid two outstanding parking tickets, totaling about $350.

At the time of the tow, Safuto was enrolled in the Community Assistance Parking Program, which allows people experiencing homelessness to pay off outstanding parking tickets by performing community service. He was scheduled to participate in the program on the day his vehicle was towed.

“Leaders of California and Los Angeles say they are working to get people out of poverty and out of homelessness, but actions like these work against individuals like Mr. Safuto who try their best to stay afloat and follow the law,” said Rebecca Miller, an attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Our state can’t afford city policies that punish people for poverty.”

Safuto informed the officer who towed his vehicle that he had submitted necessary proof and fees to register his car, and that he was participating in the Community Assistance Parking Program, but the officer had the car towed anyway.

Safuto later presented this information at an administrative hearing, where he contested the tow, but the administrative officer only considered that the car had not been registered at the time of the tow.

Because Safuto was unable to pay the fees associated with the tow — including a $115 City of Los Angeles “vehicle release fee,” a $41.50 daily storage fee, and a $70 lien processing fee — the towing company sold his car at lien sale.

Despite the fact that the car was sold, Safuto was charged $1004.50 to cover the lien and he still had to do the community service to work off the parking ticket debt.

“Everyone has a right to due process and security in their belongings, and cars are no exception,” said Julia Devanthéry, the Dignity for All staff attorney at the ACLU of SoCal. “Vehicles are essential for many Angelenos — especially those experiencing homelessness. The city should be investing in affordable housing instead of cutting people’s essential lifelines to work and safety by towing their cars for debt collection.”

This action is an amendment to a petition filed in July. Safuto seeks a court order to ensure that the City tows vehicles only when it is necessary for public safety, rather than for debt collection. Safuto also seeks to reverse the decision of the administrative hearing officer and recover all costs associated with the tow, as well as the cost to replace his vehicle.

Read the lawsuit here.

 

MEDIA CONTACTS:

Sara Williams, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, (323) 801-7996, sjwilliams@lafla.org

ACLU SoCal Communications & Media Advocacy, (213) 977-5252, communications@aclusocal.org

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About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

About ACLU of Southern California
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California was founded in 1923 to defend and secure rights guaranteed by the Constitution – free speech, religion, the rights of assembly, freedom of the press, and due process under the law — and extend them to people who have been excluded from their protection. Our work is accomplished through litigation in the courts, public education and lobbying.