PROFILE: Berkshire Center for Justice offers legal help for those in need
Great Barrington — In September 2006, Eve Schatz hosted the area’s first Free Legal Clinic in collaboration with Berkshire South Regional Community Center. The clinic was part of the pilot to test Schatz’s theory that there was a need, in Berkshire County, for increased access to legal representation for low-income individuals. “We had a good turnout,” Schatz recalled of the more than 30 people who showed up seeking legal advice on myriad matters. Today, Schatz is at the helm of Berkshire Center for Justice, a nonprofit that provides pro bono and sliding-scale legal support to persons who otherwise would not have access to representation — and her pool of clients continues to swell, particularly as winter and the holidays set in.
“We fill a unique position in the Berkshires,” said Schatz, whose vision — namely understanding that legal, social and community issues are inherently linked — makes her a pioneer in the field. In a world where social service organizations don’t address legal issues, and lawyers don’t address social and community needs, BCJ fills a niche that is sorely needed. “To address one [issue] without the others is doing the client a disservice,” Schatz explained in a recent interview, pointing to the fact that BCJ, in doing both, is a boon not only to clients, but also to the entire community at large.
Schatz cut straight to the chase: “If I help [a client] with one issue but the core problem is not addressed, next month they are [going to be] in exactly in the same position.” If she has a client facing eviction for nonpayment of rent, she can represent that individual for the eviction. “But if I don’t ask, ‘Why can’t you pay your rent?’, I’m not getting to the root,” Schatz explained. “There are a million reasons,” she added, ranging from divorce and death to illness and decreased Social Security benefits, just to name a few.
Ted Browzowski of Lee understands this all too well. A cancer patient who suffers from diabetes, Browzowski was recently facing eviction from the mobile home park where he has lived for close to two decades. “Somebody mentioned to me about trying to find legal help for my situation, they gave me the number for [Eve’s] office and I gave her a call,” he told me in a recent phone interview. The pair later met at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, where, every Wednesday, Schatz is on hand for the Free Legal Clinic. “She’s a very nice person, and very understanding of my health issues,” Browzoski said of Schatz, noting in particular her concern for his health and the complexity of his schedule working two jobs. Schatz was able to resolve the issue without her client having to appear in court, and for the moment, Browzowski can stay put. “I try to keep the glass-half-full mentality,” he said, “but [the idea of] having to leave my place is so overwhelming to me, I was sick over it.” Schatz connected her client with Construct, and he has begun the search for an apartment, as relocation remains part of his long-term picture. He has a dog and a son, both of whom will need to make the move with him, and the options still feel few and far between. “I’m between a rock and a hard place,” Browzowski said. “I make too much money for subsidized housing, but not enough to make ends meet.” That said, BCJ has given Browzowski time to find alternatives.
In 2006, Schatz was the single mother of a 6-year-old, commuting from Great Barrington to Springfield each day where she was enrolled in law school full-time. She could have relocated to diminish time spent in transit, “but my home, my friends, [and] my support system was here in Great Barrington,” she said. Schatz grew to rely heavily on others — to stand in the gap for her when she was at school — which, for her, called to mind the idea of a village. “[Throughout] American history, before there was all this mobility and industrialization, families lived in compounds,” she explained. “Even if it was not a village, it was in close proximity to others.” Her exposure to other cultures, and how they deal with cultural and social issues, got Schatz thinking: Could a holistic approach, to address a trinity of issues simultaneously, be employed? Her answer was a resounding “yes,” and the BCJ was born.
The local nonprofit, one of only 27 known nonprofit legal organizations offering sliding-scale direct legal services in the country in civil matters, is forward-thinking and cutting-edge. “We are always ahead of our time in our programming,” explained Schatz, whose organization relies heavily on donations in the absence of income from clients. BCJ has run, for 14 years, “literally on a shoe-string budget, [one] that speaks to our sincerity,” said Schatz.
“If someone can’t pay the rent, and they are faced with the choice between having heat or [medical] prescriptions or food instead, I can refer them,” Schatz explained, in a nod to the growing number of social service agencies with whom she refers back and forth. By networking intimately throughout the community and listening closely to client needs, BCJ collaborates with existing health, educational, housing, domestic violence and women’s organizations to identify gaps in services and help fill those needs without duplicating services. These collaborations allow those with expertise on various legal and social issues to work together, all in greater service to the community.
Schatz looks at it like this: “[Rather than] targeting the most vulnerable, we support the most vulnerable to the best of our ability.” And the most vulnerable among us are not always so easy to spot. Recently, Schatz helped a client whose car was in the process of being repossessed by the bank. “We got [my client] a one-time grant, along with a letter from her employer, to persuade the auto loan company to drop the proceedings,” Schatz explained, fully understanding that to lose a car to repossession creates more problems: With no way to get to work, there is no way to pay rent, and then there is one more person needing additional services in the Berkshires.
“It is so obvious to me how legal, social and community issues are so tightly woven that they can’t be separated,” Schatz said, “but they are.” And in her eyes, to separate them is a disservice to how interconnected they are. At BCJ, Schatz welcomes the diversity of the community. Clients range in age from 17 and 18 years old to individuals in their 90s; their religious affiliations are diverse; and she has worked with clients from nine different countries, including immigrants, in a variety of ways. To support this growing population, Brooke Mead, former executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, is an immigrant specialist currently providing grant-writing support at BCJ. The environment is welcoming and free from judgment; in fact, the intake form for new clients does not ask one to reveal their gender. Regarding gender. “To us, unless it’s a key element to the legal issue that’s coming up, one’s gender is their own,” said Schatz, who does not turn anyone away.
BCJ seeks to enlist the goodwill and skills of those in the community for the best outcome, an approach Schatz calls “unique, creative and effective.” In another recent case, an elderly widow fell behind on her mortgage in the absence of her husband’s Social Security benefits. After falling into foreclosure, a short-sale buyer was found (defined when the offer on the property is less than what is owed on the loan). A local nonprofit organization was able to negotiate with the mortgage company and persuade it out of its reluctance to approve the short sale. Schatz represented the woman pro bono in the real estate closing, while Polly Mann Salenovich, director at the Claire Teague Senior Center, got her to the top of the list for low-income housing. This is the collaboration Schatz is talking about: “I could represent [my client] in the short-sale of her home and relieve her of the impossible burden to be legally responsible for a debt she can’t pay, but then she’d be homeless. In solving one problem, we’d be creating another.” In this story, the good will did not stop there: Last month, following the closing, a local real estate agent helped empty the woman’s home of her possessions, and another brought a U-Haul. “All of those parts were essential to help this case end successfully,” said Schatz. “If any of these parts fails, the whole case collapses and we have one more homeless, uncared-for person in the Berkshires.” And this is what motivates Schatz in her work: “I have a unique way of looking at the world . . . [and] I have a duty to get my gift out into the world. It’s extremely gratifying to know that I help people every single day. Instead of burning me out, [this work] fuels me.”
NOTE: Since its inception, The Free Legal Clinic has served over 2,000 people through outreach, intake and direct legal service programs. BCJ has 24 referred pro bono and reduced-fee attorneys, and is a charitable 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. If you are an attorney and would like to learn the details about how you may contribute to BCJ, call (413) 854-1955. Donations can be made on BCJ’s website: http://berkshirecenterforjustice.org/.