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Helping the Vulnerable Find Hope and Justice Amidst a Pandemic

October 13, 2020

Making hope, dignity, and justice available to low-income Iowans leads the mission statement of Iowa Legal Aid. COVID-19 has made receiving these fundamental human rights difficult for many of our most vulnerable populations.

The organization, which provides free civil legal services for low-income and vulnerable individuals, has seen issues impacting the basic human needs of people increase during the pandemic.

“The population we served before already had challenges, and now we see those compounded,” said Michelle Jungers, managing attorney at Iowa Legal Aid’s Waterloo office. “The number of unemployment cases we’ve had come through our office in the last four months has been more than I’ve seen in my time as manager.”

As moratoriums for rent expire, and the deluge of unemployment cases causes delays in the system, people are unable to meet their basic needs.

“We are helping them with an appeal, but it’s taking so much longer,” said Michelle. “On top of the uncertainty of not knowing if they are going to get benefits, our clients face questions of, ‘Can I even pay my car loan?’ or ‘Can I keep a roof over my head?”

Working with clients on cases has also become more challenging as the organization works to keep those they serve and employees safe. Offices are still closed to the public, which means attorneys must gather information and gain the trust of clients over the phone. Additionally, the load of incoming questions and cases has increased significantly.

To ensure it is helping as many people as possible, Iowa Legal Aid has established a COVID-19 hotline for those trying to navigate legal issues. The organization received $20,000 in grant funding from the Black Hawk County COVID-19 Cooperative Disaster Response Fund, which helped make this dedicated service possible.

“With that funding, we can help people who have been impacted by COVID-19. I would say a majority of those are housing cases and unemployment cases,” said Michelle. “We can’t take every case that comes to our office, we just don’t have the resources, but having this funding allows us to prioritize specifically those cases for individuals impacted by COVID-19.”

According to Michelle, the funding helps Iowa Legal Aid not only financially but also emotionally.

“My staff can sometimes feel beat down a little these days. It’s hard to deliver bad news to so many people,” said Michelle. “Knowing the Community Foundation and other funders see what you’re doing and say you’re doing good work and we want to support you means a lot.”