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COVID-19 Has Created A Legal Aid Crisis. FEMA's Usual Response Is Missing


With huge numbers of job losses and furloughs, millions of Americans are being pushed to the brink of eviction. After a hurricane or other natural disaster, FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - would start up a legal assistance program to help people at risk of losing their homes. That has not happened in the pandemic and the economic crisis it created. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has been investigating, and she joins us now. Good morning.


MARTIN: So first off, just explain what kind of legal help FEMA usually provides.

HERSHER: So they usually provide legal hotlines, and these are staffed by the American Bar Association for free. But the federal government, they pay up to $5,000 per hotline. That's to cover equipment and software. So basically, the number is a number that anyone can call; they can get legal help. But because FEMA hasn't made the money available, there are only three states that have hotlines right now.

MARTIN: And walk through why there would be demand for legal help because of the coronavirus.

HERSHER: Yeah. So after any disaster, people actually need lawyers to help them register for food stamps and unemployment. There are increases in domestic violence after disasters, and you need help with that. And housing is a really big issue, and eviction is a particularly dangerous thing right now because it puts people and communities at higher risk, you know, for spreading the virus.


HERSHER: So one example for the demand right now - there are small FEMA-funded hotlines in a couple of places. These are places that had weather disasters this spring. But the bar association says that most of the people who are calling them are calling about COVID-19.

MARTIN: The question is whether or not, Becky (ph), people are getting the help they need. If they have all these problems and they're calling out for help because of COVID, are they getting that assistance?

HERSHER: They're not. I mean, there is a lot of demand, but lawyers say that tenants especially are calling a lot. So I talked to one man in New Orleans. His name is Bobby Parker. He is a renter. He's a sanitation worker on Bourbon Street. He's been furloughed. And he was late with his rent in April because he didn't have enough money. So he went to work one day, and when he got back, he told me this.

BOBBY PARKER: I put my key in. All the doors and all the locks had been changed.

HERSHER: The landlord had changed the locks on his apartment.

MARTIN: Did he tell the landlord there was a rule against evictions?

HERSHER: He did 'cause there is; there's a moratorium on evictions right now. He said it didn't work. He ended up getting a lawyer through a legal aid group who fought the eviction, eventually won, but it took more than two weeks. And he said, in that time, he alternated between sleeping on a friend's - at a friend's house on their bed with them and sleeping outside.

Mr. Parker, what do you think would have happened if you didn't have a lawyer?

PARKER: If I wouldn't have had - oh, man. I'd probably be - like I said - a victim that had been tested positive for COVID-19 and fighting for my life. I truly do.

HERSHER: He says he was really scared, and that's in part because he's HIV-positive, so he's at a higher-than-average risk if he were to get the virus. Lawyers and legal aid groups like the one that helped him say that without FEMA-funded hotlines, it's harder to give people this kind of help.

MARTIN: Has FEMA said anything about this?

HERSHER: They didn't comment. They said that outstanding requests for help like this are under review. The White House declined to comment. The thing to remember here is the president has the ultimate power to unlock this money, and more than 30 governors have asked for this type of assistance.

MARTIN: NPR's Rebecca Hersher, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.