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Trump budget puts legal assistance on the chopping block for low-income Granite Staters

  • A quote from Mother Teresa hangs near the printer at the Legal Advice and Referral Center in Concord. The LARC provides legal assistance to low-income Granite Staters. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Legal Advice and Referral Center Executive Director Breckie Hayes-Snow speaks with a co-worker Friday. Hayes-Snow said she wasn’t sure how LARC would stay open without federal money cut from the Trump administration’s proposed budget.

  • The New Hampshire Legal Advice and Referral Center in Concord has been open for 21 years. Because the center gets most of its funding from a federal program on the chopping block in the Trump administration’s proposed budget, the legal professionals at LARC are concerned the center may have to close. Elodie Reed / Monitor staff

  • Mae Bilodeau stands next to the window in her Franklin apartment. After receiving help from the Legal Advice and Referral Center in an eviction dispute – and getting the eviction dismissed in court – Bilodeau decided to move to another apartment. Elodie Reed photos / Monitor staff

  • Mae Bilodeau secures the porch door before leaving her old apartment in Franklin on Friday. Bilodeau is moving out after winning an eviction dispute with the help of the Legal Advice and Referral Center. She voted for Donald Trump in November, but Bilodeau disagrees with his budget proposal that would eliminate federal funding for legal assistance programs like LARC. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Bart the dog waits for a ball to be thrown while his owner and Legal Advice and Referral Center Executive Director Breckie Hayes-Snow talks with paralegal Steve McGilvary. Bart boosts morale at LARC. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Sunday, April 02, 2017

Served an eviction notice on Jan. 26, Mae Bilodeau had all but resigned herself to getting kicked out of her Franklin apartment.

Following a domestic violence incident a year earlier, the 61-year-old said she was abandoned by her partner and left to pay for the two-bedroom unit herself. She subsequently suffered a stroke and continued to care for her 11-year-old adopted daughter, Megan.

Unsure of what to do with the eviction paperwork, Bilodeau went to her computer and asked Google, “Can the landlord evict me?”

She saw among the search results a promising website: New Hampshire Legal Assistance. She contacted the affiliated Legal Advice and Referral Center, and that’s when she first talked to paralegal Steve McGilvary.

Less than a month later, her eviction was dismissed in Franklin District Court.

“I didn’t even know there was any help out there,” she said.

This help, which LARC provided to roughly 5,200 low-income Granite Staters in 2016 alone, is now under threat. The Trump administration’s budget plan proposes to eliminate the Legal Services Corp. – the federal dollars that fund about 70 percent of LARC’s work.

“I honestly don’t know how LARC would survive at all if that money went away,” Executive Director Breckie Hayes-Snow said.

And Bilodeau – who voted for Trump – doesn’t want that to happen. She said she elected her president precisely because she thought he would help the poor people of America who need services like LARC.

“He seems to be taking away from them more than helping them at this point,” Bilodeau said.

Legal trouble

It started out as a difficult year. Suddenly a single person paying $1,100 a month for an apartment, Bilodeau – a retired chef and baker who lives on Social Security disability benefits – began dipping into her savings.

After suffering a stroke the week before Father’s Day, Bilodeau said she has since struggled with short-term memory.

In the fall, according to LARC, Bilodeau got her first eviction notice – much to her surprise and embarrassment. She had forgotten the rent payment, LARC said, and texted her landlord that she had a check for him.

Before the second eviction notice in January, Bilodeau said she had texted her Florida landlord, Carl Swoyer, again. She couldn’t find a copy of her lease with the instructions for how exactly to make the payment.

But Swoyer wasn’t willing to help her fix the problem, Bilodeau said. “He wouldn’t tell me where to send it or put it or anything.”

(Reached by phone, Swoyer and his wife, Christine, declined a Monitor interview request).

Court documents show that the lease required an automatic bank transfer to a Franklin Savings Bank account. According to a handwritten note pasted to the lease, Bilodeau had to make the payment in person due to “fraudulent withdrawal” in the past.

Bilodeau said this was actually a one-time, accidental mix-up in bank account numbers when she went to make a car payment by phone – she’s since changed banks.

When Bilodeau called McGilvary at LARC and later sent him the court documents, he saw several legal problems with the landlord’s actions. The paperwork shows Swoyer asked for an $1,150 payment from Bilodeau, more than the lease amount – and more than he was supposed to.

He also had her pay a safety deposit twice the amount of the monthly rent cost, which isn’t allowed in New Hampshire, McGilvary said.

Bilodeau filed a motion to dismiss the eviction due to these issues, and in a hearing on Feb. 27, Judge Edward Gordon granted it.

At the beginning of the process, Bilodeau said, “I was a nervous wreck when I called” McGilvary.

But that anxiety eventually turned into confidence, and then, when it was all over, relief, she said.

Bilodeau decided shortly afterward to move out of the apartment to Tilton. She found a smaller, cheaper place there, she said, and expected her daughter to do better in a different school system.

Nearing the end of her packing and cleaning, Bilodeau looked through her empty bedroom window for one of the last times Friday. She said she would miss the view – trees and an opening leading down to the Merrimack River – but not the drama.

“I didn’t want to have to go through all this again,” she said. “It feels like a big weight had been lifted off me, leaving here.”

Budget threat

When you enter the LARC front door in downtown Concord, there’s a modest reception area with a few chairs, a computer and several frames hanging on the wall. One holds a photograph of a bright, blue bird, and the other an organization mission statement of sorts.

The bluebird, the framed paper says, is a symbol of hope, confidence and happiness.

“At LARC, we provide HOPE to so many in desperate need of legal advice,” it reads.

Then: “We instill CONFIDENCE in our clients, empowering them to represent themselves in court.”

And finally: “Assisting clients to resolve their legal problems contributes to their HAPPINESS and ours.”

That, in essence, is why Hayes-Snow said she’s been working at LARC for two decades. The executive director started her employment shortly after the referral center was formed in 1995 as a complementary service to New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the New Hampshire Bar Association’s pro bono referral program.

“We’re the ‘teach-them-to-fish department,’ ” Hayes-Snow said in an interview Friday. “It’s remarkable how successful people can be when they have the right tools. There’s so much more demand for the services we provide than we can do.”

Hayes-Snow said LARC gives legal advice to callers on situations involving eviction, foreclosure, family disputes, and public and disability benefits. For other issues, LARC refers applicants to both New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the pro bono program.

“What we’re really in the business of doing is providing equal access to justice for everybody,” Hayes-Snow said.

LARC in particular is focused on the low-income population. To qualify for aid, applicants must be living at least 125 percent below poverty level – a stipulation of the federal Legal Services Corp. money LARC gets, Hayes-Snow said.

Another condition that comes with the federal dollars is an inability to lobby. So while LARC knows that President Donald Trump is asking Congress to cut the Legal Services Corp. out of the next budget year – a “devastating” blow to LARC – Hayes-Snow said she can’t do much about it.

“I remain hopeful and cautiously optimistic,” she said. “I believe the support we have in the Senate will keep legal services in this country alive.”

Apart from the few programs like New Hampshire Legal Assistance, Hayes-Snow added, “There isn’t anybody out there lobbying for poor people because there’s no money in it.”

‘A year’

Bilodeau thought Trump was going to be the champion of the poor and the middle class, at least more than Hillary Clinton would have been. That’s why she voted for him on Nov. 8.

“It did sound like he wanted America great again,” she said. “I don’t see that happening right now, and I think it should be a priority.”

Bilodeau is especially unhappy about the real-life consequences of Trump’s recommendation to eliminate the legal aid program and other services for low-income Americans.

“They’re struggling enough and to lose good services like legal aid and community access – (fuel assistance) – it’s sad,” she said. The Home Energy Assistance Program is another proposed cut in Trump’s budget plan.

“The little people of the world need help,” Bilodeau said.

Of course, this voter knows Trump is new to politics. So she’s willing to give him a chance.

“I give him a year,” Bilodeau said. He might get better she said, or, “he might stink.”

And that’s when the real-life consequences might lead to real political consequences. Bilodeau said she plans to help fight for programs like LARC as Congress considers their value to the nation.

“I’ll protest if I have to,” she said. “At the Concord State House.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to indicate that even if LARC’s federal funding were to go away, New Hampshire Legal Assistance would continue its work.