Yeluri honored by her law school as a “Champion of Justice”

swapna_croppedSwapna Yeluri, HPRP’s director of pro bono programs, was one of three “outstanding legal luminaries” honored by the Roger Williams University School of Law as a Champion of Justice. Swapna, a 2007 RWU Law graduate, was recognized for her “impact and accomplishments” in supporting pro bono and public interest law. More than 400 people attended the awards dinner late last month.

While at RWU Law in Bristol, R.I.,  Swapna was the president of the Multicultural Law Students Association, participated in the Criminal Defense Clinic, was the program coordinator for the Bridge to Success Program (a youth mentoring program), and won the New England Regional Best Brief Award for the National Moot Court Competition.

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Paving the way for veterans’ discharge upgrades

richardsonHPRP volunteer attorney Jim Richardson (center), our go-to expert on veteran discharge upgrades, stopped by the office yesterday to help review discharge upgrade cases before we assign them to pro bono attorneys. Jim is a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and for 26 years was the senior attorney advisor for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

“Our volunteer attorneys who take the cases will file upgrade to help the veterans attain discharge upgrades and get rid of the scarlet letter of less-than-honorable discharges,” said staff attorney Michael Stone (left), who runs the Rural Veterans Legal Assistance Project. On the right is director of pro bono programs Swapna Yeluri.

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With his lawyer’s help, a homeless veteran starts “a new beginning”

Swapna Yeluri, Director of Pro Bono Programs

Swapna Yeluri, Director of Pro Bono Programs

A homeless Baltimore veteran is now entitled to health care benefits and received an 80-percent, service-connected disability rating, thanks to Swapna Yeluri, his HPRP attorney. The 41-year-old man (who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome) currently resides in a homeless shelter. But thanks to a lump-sum back award of over $4,600 and a monthly VA payment of over $1,500 a month, he is now looking for an apartment.

“Ms. Swapna was very empathetic to my horrific struggles while I was serving in the military,” the client wrote in an email. “While sitting down with her for more than three hours reviewing my military record, [she] not only served as my attorney demonstrating extreme knowledge and dedicated diligence, but she also unknowingly served as a mental therapist and a psychiatrist.”

“When I left [her] office, it felt like a load or burden had been lifted off of my shoulders,” he continued. “With the service that was provided to me by Ms. Swapna, I have a start to a new beginning and positive outlook on life.”

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A disabled woman and her family will get public housing

Staff attorney Jasmyn Harrington

Staff attorney Jasmyn Harrington

A disabled and homeless Baltimore woman and her young family were granted a “reasonable accommodation” request with the help of her HPRP lawyer. The story: The Housing Authority of Baltimore City informed the woman that she was not eligible for housing assistance because she had a previous eviction from public housing and she owed a balance to the Housing Authority.

The client, 39, has two young children and a history of depression. “At the time of her eviction, she was dealing with a lot,” said HPRP housing attorney Jasmyn Harrington. “In January 2014, she lost her maternal grandmother, who raised her. In May, she then lost one of the only male figures in her life, her uncle, and in the very next month she lost her mother.”

The three back-to-back deaths exacerbated her disability and she had to check herself into a residential metal health clinic. “It was while she was at the mental health clinic that she was evicted for non-payment of rent,” Jasmyn said.

Jasmyn requested  that the client be allowed to enter into a repayment agreement to pay the money owed and that she be allowed to access housing through the Housing Authority before 2018, which was the year they told her she would be eligible again, as a reasonable accommodation for her disabilities. “The accommodation was granted and the client is now eligible for public housing and the Housing Choice Voucher Program,” Jasmyn said.

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Fasanelli receives Cardin Award from MLSC

afchjHPRP executive director Antonia Fasanelli (left, with Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera) was awarded the Benjamin L. Cardin Distinguished Service Award by the Maryland Legal Services Corp. earlier this week.

The Cardin Award is given annually to an outstanding public interest lawyer who has dedicated their career to legal services. Fasanelli has worked with homeless people her entire 15-year legal career, including nine years as executive director at HPRP.

Fasanelli shared the Cardin Award with Blaine A. Hoffmann, director of legal services for Heartly House, a domestic violence program and emergency shelter in Frederick.

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Melissa Loomis joins HPRP


Staff attorney Melissa Loomis

HPRP welcomes Melissa Loomis, who recently joined our staff  as a staff attorney for the One Baltimore for Jobs (1B4J) project. She will be focused on helping clients at Baltimore City job training centers obtain expungement of their criminal records. “By removing things like charges that were never prosecuted, dismissed charges or convictions for charges that are no longer a crime, we can reduce potential barriers to employment for our clients,” Melissa said. She is a 2012 graduate of the American University Washington College of Law and previously worked in upstate New York on prisoners’ rights issues.

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Vote YES on Baltimore City’s Question J!

question-j-rallyMore than 18,000 signatures were collected to get Question J, which asks voters to amend the Baltimore City Charter to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, on the Election Day ballot. Let’s make the Trust Fund, a key tool to bring local resources to bear to create fair and affordable housing, a reality!

The Trust Fund would receive ongoing public and private funding to support the production of affordable housing for low-income families in the city. For more information, click here.

Baltimore is among a dozen U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, with affordable housing measures on their November ballots. As this article in In These Times reports, 6 in 10 Americans say affordable housing is a key issue for them–and more than 60% say their local officials don’t do enough to make housing more affordable.

According to the Center for Community Change, “More than 770 housing trust funds in cities, counties and states generate more than $1.2 billion a year to support critical housing needs, underscoring the integral role these funds play in the world of affordable housing.”

Help make affordable housing a priority in Baltimore. Vote YES for Question J on election day, November 8!

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With the help of his pro bono attorney, a veteran gets a tenfold increase in benefits

With HPRP’s help, a veteran who suffered a knee injury while serving in the U.S. Army in the 1980s saw his monthly disability payments increase more than ten times, along with a six-figure retroactive award!

Swapna Yeluri, Director of Pro Bono Programs

Swapna Yeluri, Director of Pro Bono Programs

“In June 2008, he had partial knee replacement surgery,” said Director of Pro Bono Services Swapna Yeluri. “He had spent more than two years in physical therapy, followed by a second surgery in 2010. He has been unable to work and was adjudicated to be totally disabled by the Social Security Administration.” This veteran received medical and mental health treatment for years.

Nearly three years after his original claim was submitted to the VA, this veteran came to HPRP for help with his challenge of a 2012 rating decision. His “Notice of Disagreement” had gone undecided, while his financial circumstances, not to mention his physical and emotional health, deteriorated.

Extensive submissions to the VA by HPRP and volunteer attorney Paul Spence were followed by a new Rating Decision that increased the disability rating from 10 percent to 60 percent, with an entitlement to 100 percent individual unemployability, effective as of the 2010 filing of his original claim. “This vet now has the financial means to secure his home, reorder his finances and move forward with a stable and dignified life,” Paul said.

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MD Judiciary: Legal services providers can now link unrepresented litigants to live chat

newchatbuttonimageonServices are available Monday – Friday from 8:30 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. Lawyers will answer questions about civil District and Circuit Court matters including landlord and tenant, family law (divorce, custody, child support, guardianship, name change), small and large claims, criminal record expungement, consumer finance (debt collection, car repossession), domestic violence, foreclosure, mandamus and more. For more information about the work of the Maryland Courts Self-Help Center, click here.

Live chat offers many benefits to self-represented litigants, including short wait times for information and advice (typically 10 seconds or less) and a written record of next steps and referrals. Litigants can access live chat from mobile phones, tablets and desk top computers.

Organizations that are interested in adding the chat button to their websites may contact or call 410-260-1256.

Posted in benefits, Disability, employment, eviction, expungement, food stamps, housing, Section 8 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Welfare reform turns 20 in Maryland

By Michelle Madaio

HPRP staff attorney Michelle Salomon Madaio

HPRP staff attorney Michelle Salomon Madaio

In October 1996, Maryland adopted new laws for providing cash assistance to families in need (following Congress enacting the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in August 1996). Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (in Maryland called Temporary Cash Assistance) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children and was intended to “end welfare as we know it.” Living up to its promise, TANF detrimentally changed how we provide cash benefits to low-income families with children.

Reflecting upon the past twenty years, the question is: What have the reforms accomplished?

The reforms made it extremely difficult to apply for and receive TANF. Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the number of families receiving TANF has significantly dropped, despite an increase in the number of families eligible for the benefit. In Maryland, less than 30% of families with children who were living in poverty received TANF in 2013-2014.

One of the reforms was the sanctioning system, perhaps the biggest obstacle HPRP’s clients face in accessing TANF. Federal law requires states to impose work requirements on families in order to receive TANF (with some exceptions). Most families are required to participate in work activity programs up to 40 hours a week. The work programs are generally unpaid and not effective in providing the education, skills, and training necessary to secure unsubsidized employment. Federal law gives states the option to impose full family sanctions if a family does not comply with the work requirements. Maryland opted for full family work sanctions.

In Maryland work sanctions are cumulative: The first time you miss work, you must work one day before your benefits resume. If you miss a second day, the sanction is 10 days loss of benefits. For the third day, it is 30 days. Your benefits are terminated and you must work – even if you have no income – for 30 days. Only then will your benefits reopen for the next month.

Even if a family is able to get approved for TANF, benefit levels are extremely low. Maryland has not increased the benefit amount over the past two years, despite other cost of living increases. The benefit for a two-person household is $503 a month (which would break down to $3.14 per hour for a 40-hour work week). For a three-person family, it’s $636 a month, also significantly below the minimum wage. Compare that to the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore: $1,380 a month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Even without all the barriers to access and strings attached, TANF falls short of meeting families’ most basic needs to survive.  We’ve opted for a system that manages poverty instead of ending it.

TANF is long overdue reform, this time for the better.

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