Civil Legal Services: Coming out of the COVID Darkness
Legal Services providers discussed the difficulties clients have had navigating government safety net programs — especially during the pandemic — and how lawyers can help.
Speaking at NYSBA’s biannual Partnership Conference, the panel of experts reported that the pandemic related government shutdown impacted subsidized nutritional programs, Social Security benefits and emergency housing.
Applying for temporary or emergency shelter can be overwhelming in the best of times for victims of trauma and those with disabilities, said Diana Proske of Neighborhood Legal Services in Buffalo. She said social services agencies sometimes circumvent the law by denying benefits before a full assessment is complete and, if that happens, lawyers should challenge it.
At the start of the pandemic, hearings for emergency shelter were held by phone. Clients who were homeless resorted to borrowing whatever phone they could find, often testifying from the sidewalk outside of a shelter, Proske said.
Eventually, the move to online hearings did help some clients obtain benefits.
For the homeless, limited access to computers and the software to upload documents were barriers to moving from emergency shelter to more permanent housing. Agencies often mailed documents to prior addresses, and the homeless were unlikely to receive them.
Finding Accommodation for Clients with Disabilities
Clients with disabilities have additional needs when it comes to securing emergency housing. For instance, they may need their own room in a hotel due to a medical condition such as an autoimmune disorder.
Linda Hassberg of Empire Justice Center, Long Island, says helping a client with a disability often involves working with doctors to qualify them for public benefits. Once benefits are secured, keep records in case a client has to apply for the same accommodation again.
Disability Rights and Long COVID
Two companion sessions offered at the Partnership Conference addressed the disabling effects of long COVID. These symptoms make it difficult for sufferers to manage life at home and work.
Of the 6 million New Yorkers who experienced COVID-19, it is estimated that 2 to 4 million of them still experience symptoms. A study by the Brookings Institution found that 16 million working age adults are dealing with long COVID and 2 to 4 million are not working due to the symptoms.
The symptoms include fatigue, worsening memory or “brain fog,” problems with concentration, headache, hair loss and shortness of breath. Some lesser-known symptoms include rapid breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations and trouble sleeping. A study conducted by Mt. Sinai Medical Center showed that symptoms worsen when triggered by physical exertion, stress and dehydration.
William Flynn of Legal Services NYC says long COVID is tough to document and the symptoms can seem largely subjective. Similar to conditions like lupus, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, those with long COVID can be marginalized and misunderstood.
It was not until there was greater awareness and understanding of such conditions that changes were seen in access to disability benefits. Further training of lawyers and awareness of long COVID would help clients gain access to disability benefits, Flynn said.
Long COVID is recognized by both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Department of Labor. The New York State Department of Health has several long COVID centers providing care and research. Panelists urged those in attendance to advocate for continued research on long COVID.