A Year of Challenges, A Year of Solutions: Access to Justice

Our annual report reflects on 2020 by sharing how PLA used its strengths to develop creative and innovative solutions to overcome the challenges brought on by the global pandemic. PLA worked on several fronts to ensure Philadelphians were able to access the courts, public benefit programs, and critical information. 


Challenge: Access to Justice 


Unemployment Compensation Unit: This year’s inflated unemployment left the state unemployment site crashing with phone calls unanswered, leaving people feeling helpless and unable to receive their benefits. By setting up the Unemployment Application Service, a live hotline staffed by over one hundred volunteers, PLA worked to ensure that everyone—including non-English speakers, folks with intellectual disabilities, and those without access to internet—could get the assistance they needed. PLA-created documents, Facebook lives, and resource pages that allowed  individuals, legislators, and other community organizations to stay informed  of constantly-changing UC updates.  


Consumer Housing Unit: The Save Your Home Philly Hotline, operated by PLA, was the only line taking live calls from tenants or homeowners at the beginning of the pandemic. Serving as the first point of contact for Philadelphians who needed a sympathetic ear and answers to their questions, CHU advocates stepped up as navigators to help people take advantage of the various iterations of rental assistance programs as they came available. The Hotline helped thousands of tenants access rental assistance payments and avoid the trauma of eviction.  PLA also partnered with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project to contact thousands of individuals to ensure that they could access assistance through the Pandemic Mortgage Assistance Program (PMAP), the homeowner assistance program created by the State of Pennsylvania to provide grants to homeowners having difficulty paying their mortgage due to loss of employment related to COVID-19.  When clients were denied PMAP, PLA advocates marshalled creative arguments on appeal to the agency distributing the funds, successfully obtaining assistance for many clients and setting a precedent for similar programs in the future. Additionally, CHU partnered with 20 community organizations to share information about housing resources during the pandemic, including the School District of Philadelphia, Philabundance, Share Food Program, SEAMAAC, and the National Health Corps. These collaborative efforts included direct mailings to at-risk Philadelphians, neighborhood canvassing, supermarket and emergency food distribution outreach, and virtual programming. 


Family Law Unit: Court delays, inaccessibility, and a lack of information threatened our vulnerable clients, most of whom are survivors of family violence, when Family Court closed in March 2020.  From advocating directly with the courts to creating templates for self-represented litigants, FLU implemented creative solutions to ensure that low-income families were able to access justice through the court system.  When the Family Court’s Help Center closed at the start of the pandemic, FLU worked to fill that gap by engaging Philadelphia VIP, an agency that recruits, trains, and supports volunteer attorneys. With the help of VIP, FLU was able to create a program providing free, 30-minute phone consultations to families who needed help drafting custody pleadings. FLU also collaborated with a coalition of domestic violence organizations in Philadelphia to create a shared resource document to ensure the greatest numbers of survivors had access to critical information. 


Pennsylvania Farmworker Project: Before the pandemic hit, PFP regularly visited workers living in close quarters in their employer-provided housing. Because of PFP’s location in Philadelphia, a densely populated urban area where the disease was spreading fast, we made the difficult decision to halt these trips. We quickly pivoted to outreach via media and social media, hosting virtual know-your-rights presentations and connecting with new partners, including service providers in counties that we do not visit often, broadening our outreach to areas of Western Pennsylvania where we hadn’t formerly engaged. Still, we knew there were isolated workers on the ground—particularly the older and less tech-savvy individuals— who we might not reach that way. To address this problem, we strengthened our partnerships with rural non-profits and community groups to collaborate on information-sharing and referrals. 


Medical-Legal Community Partnership: Our MLCP aims to promote health equity by finding civil legal solutions to the social, economic, and environmental factors contributing to toxic stress and poor health. When the pandemic forced our staff out of our partner health centers, our advocates adjusted by leaning into telework, including daily patient case review with our health partners, to stay engaged. Our staff also increased the frequency of check-ins with existing patients and found creative ways to encourage new patient referrals, like explainer videos and weekly resource guides. These efforts allowed our MLCP to serve as an essential lifeline for patients with unmet legal needs stemming from the social and economic fallout of pandemic, such as accessing social security and unemployment benefits. In the midst of the pandemic, Health Partners Plans, a non-profit health maintenance organization which provides Medicaid, Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) to central and southeastern Pennsylvania residents, funded a new MLCP site at Maria de los Santos Health Center making it possible for us to extend access to the Latinx community.  


Taxpayer Support Clinic: When stimulus payments became available, it was virtually impossible for taxpayers to contact the IRS by phone, leaving taxpayers confused and frustrated. Our Taxpayer Support Clinic hosted Facebook lives and shared educational materials to ensure people knew their eligibility. Through intentional outreach to at-risk populations, we made sure that everyone—such as people experiencing homelessness, non-English speakers, and older retired folks—knew how to receive their payments.