With three-year funding from Tompkins County, Law New York (LawNY) now has the capability to help county residents with housing issues before they even make it to court. Barbara Kasian started as the LawNY public benefits and housing advocate in March and has been making connections and steering people towards services since.
“We have a major housing crisis in Tompkins County and historically Law New York has only been able to become involved once someone is in [an] actual crisis,” Kasian said. “This program allows people to have someone to meet with before that point, and the goal is really to avoid the court papers and the scheduling of the informal hearing.”
The need for this type of preventative service has been around for a while Kasian doesn’t have to go searching for clients because they’ve been calling LawNY for help for years. The funding, she said, partially came out of the community being aware that LawNY had to turn away calls from people in need of preventative services.
Since starting in March Kasian has been doing outreach with local organizations that interact with the people who could use her help; Tompkins Community Action, landlords, property owners, and other housing organizations in the area. When it comes to landlords and property owners, she wants to create positive relationships, encouraging them to call her before eviction papers are served.
“‘Before you have to go and file court papers, feel free to refer them and I can try to help them if it’s something like a lease violation and sometimes a tenant doesn’t understand or there was a miscommunication,’” is the message Kasian gives them. “Sometimes a third party can really make a big difference in those types of situations.”
A lot of the issues she deals with have to do with the subsidies that her clients use to pay rent and other necessities. When there are multiple subsidies being used things can get complicated, and navigating them can be tricky.
“When you’ve got a tenant paying rent, an agency paying rent, social services contributing to that, it can easily get complicated and one thing can mess up a lot of other things,” she said.
In a classic Catch 22, general homelessness is also a big problem for her clients. Many people without housing in the area still have housing subsidies, but those subsidies are time sensitive and if they can’t find housing within the price range of that subsidy in a certain amount of time, they lose the subsidy. Clients who have been homeless for a while won’t have updated landlord references, your credit might have taken a few hits, and looking for housing without resources is difficult. Kasian spends a lot of time connecting with care providers, adult protective services, and other resources to create a support system for her clients.
“Preventive services are huge. We all know that makes a big difference,” she said. “The system isn’t necessarily set up that way. The system is designed to help when crises arise. So, this is a different approach. The county knows there’s a need, the county supports the need, we’ve got to do something. The numbers at the homeless shelter are crazy, they’re higher than they’ve ever been, and we’re in Ithaca, it’s people that have lived here their entire lives are getting pushed out of county. So, the more support they can get here the better.”
Because Ithaca and Tompkins County is a resource-rich area for those in need of housing, she is apprehensive about sending her clients out of the county even if it is more affordable. Moving people can also disrupt whatever support system they may already have in place.
When people come to meet with her she can give them general legal information and help them understand their rights. Since starting in March, she’s been feeling out where the line from information to advice is. When things veer into the need for advice she consults with one of the attorneys in her office.
Currently, Kasian is the only employee paid by the funding stream. For the next three years, she plans on working to maintain and possibly expand that funding stream. She would love to hire a social worker who can do a lot more case management, following up with everything that needs to be followed up with. While she can do limited case management, it’s not what her job is really about. She is working to connect with established resources, help people understand their rights, and make solid, reliable referrals for her clients. Ideally, she would like to find money for a slush fund to help with the small expenses that make a big difference: that $100 her client needs to stay in their housing, money for bus passes to help clients with transportation, all those small things that end up creating big problems.
She understands the difficulties of housing and the intricacies of maintaining it, but she does see hope. Funding preventative services, she said, is a step in the right direction.
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