May 13, 2020
Written by Colleen Foley, Executive Director, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee
The goal of United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County’s Safe & Stable Homes initiative is to end family homelessness. A major contributor to family homelessness and housing instability in our community is eviction. While COVID-19 eviction moratoria and related public funding have provided relief, evictions nonetheless continue at a steady pace. And data from the last several pre-pandemic years show nearly 14,000 annual eviction filings in Milwaukee County alone.
The Legal Aid Society works with partners, including landlords, to prevent evictions before they occur. But evictions remain the favored legal recourse and one that causes significant community upheaval, particularly for women and children. Ensuring that the system works for everyone is essential. An effective way to do so is Right to Counsel.
What is Right to Counsel?
Right to Counsel is a tested, growing national movement (with a proven track record in seven cities) that successfully addresses gross disparities in eviction proceedings. In Milwaukee County for instance, only 3% of tenants are represented. Right to Counsel provides free legal counsel to families facing an eviction who have at least one minor child in the home and are at or below 100% of the federal poverty guidelines.
Housing is a human right. Its loss impacts basic quality of life issues, such as individual, familial and neighborhood stability, employment and educational success, mental and physical health, and avoidance of criminal justice involvement. A legal advocate for evictions navigates a complex process that involves appearances before judicial officials, statutory interpretation, and the expeditious resolution of disputes to the benefit of both sides. Defense counsel educates individuals about housing rights and obligations for the case at hand as well as going forward. Ultimately, Right to Counsel ensures that the system works as intended and that each party is properly heard.
Who benefits from Right to Counsel?
Right to Counsel does more than even the playing field – it dignifies and instills confidence in the system by fundamentally changing the culture of evictions. Data shows that Right to Counsel reduces default judgments and increases equitable outcomes with each side accountable for following the letter of the law. And it reduces pressure on an already overtaxed safety net, creating substantial cost savings and freeing up precious resources at shelters and emergency rooms. Families with stable housing are then able to focus on what matters most – their children’s educational success, gainful employment, and other matters critical to family well-being and a healthy community.
How can you advocate for Right to Counsel in our community?
The time is now to make Right to Counsel a reality in our community. Here’s how you can help:
- Funding: your donation to United Way’s Safe & Stable Homes initiative supports programs like the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and Legal Action of Wisconsin that provide free representation to tenants facing eviction. Click here to donate today.
- Advocate for Right to Counsel as a law: contact Senator Tammy Baldwin to voice your support for federal resources dedicated to Right to Counsel. United Way’s Advocacy webpage has resources to help.
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