Responding to Crisis: Marking One Year of COVID-19

Last March, few imagined that our community would still be grappling with the coronavirus pandemic a year later.

In many ways it seems the pandemic is nearing an end after this year of hardship and loss: vaccines for the virus are increasingly available, and cases have dropped to a point where North Carolina is easing activity restrictions. 

But we are only just beginning to understand the extent to which this virus has driven our neighbors to the margins of safety, economic security and family stability, laying bare the extreme inequities that have long existed in our community. 

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has spent the last year fighting for our community’s most vulnerable residents as COVID-19 upended daily life.

As we pass this milestone, we take stock of just how much we’ve fought to advance our mission of pursuing justice this past year.  

It’s work we do every day and have always done in our 50+ years of service. But COVID-19 has cast a glaring spotlight on the importance of our mission. 

Pursuing justice: It’s fairness under the law. It’s equal access. It’s meeting basic needs. And it’s making sure our neighbors are equipped to endure any crisis life throws their way, including a global pandemic. 

Today and every day, we continue this hard, necessary work until our community is a stronger, more just and equitable place for ALL. 

Over the past year we:

  • Addressed immediate issues related to agency closures in our local Department of Social Services (DSS), allowing for remote application for benefits and limiting terminations and state unemployment insurance systems to tackle issues stalling federal unemployment benefits.
  • Helped clients navigate individual economic stimulus payments and unemployment insurance programs.
  • Prevented illegal evictions and kept vulnerable populations safely housed.
  • Responded to critical needs for protective orders and intervention due to a sharp increase in domestic violence incidents while our courts were operating on a limited capacity.
  • Monitored the changes in Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs to ensure coverage is not disrupted for those who need them in our community.
  • Advocated for language and technological access on administrative applications for health, food and income benefits to ensure all who were entitled to assistance could receive it.
  • Assisted people who have lost their jobs and/or health insurance navigate Affordable Care Act health coverage options and Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs).
  • Ensured members of our community are not falling victim to COVID-19 related scams and losing their income.
  • Helped immigrant families understand the unique ways the pandemic impacts employment, housing, public resources, ICE activity and immigration courts.

Read on to learn more about the need for our services and our impact over the past year.

Meeting Exacerbated Needs

Days after the first cases were reported, we shifted to remote operations, equipping staff to continue our work as the need for help grew exponentially.

For our neighbors living on economic and health margins, the pandemic has further exacerbated their instability in extreme ways.

The need for our services before the pandemic:

  • More than two thirds of low-income households were experiencing at least one civil legal problem that significantly impacted daily life. These rates are much higher for survivors of domestic violence, immigrants, veterans, families, and parents of children with disabilities.
  • In Mecklenburg County, poverty, segregation, and income inequality have pushed residents to the sidelines, concentrating distress in family stability and fortifying barriers to economic opportunity.
  • Children born into poor families in Mecklenburg County are among the least likely in the U.S. to escape poverty.
  • About 300,000 Mecklenburg residents were eligible for our services.

Public agencies closed and delayed services just as newly unemployed individuals found themselves trying to piece together a semblance of stability navigating administrative and public benefits systems for the first time.

Those already depending on these systems (people with disabilities, children, seniors, veterans and their families) were desperate to prevent the illness, hunger and homelessness that could result from losing Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or other benefits.

The combined effects of racial, gender, ethnic, and other forms of bias create multiple barriers for people of color and women as they navigate institutions where entrenched disparities remain the status quo.

This clear intersectionality has yielded disproportionately negative impacts for people of color and women during the pandemic. Because of this reality, we have continued to identify and address systemic racism while fighting to ensure equal access to assistance.

When Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) closed its offices to the public on March 18 with little notice, we fought to make sure our neighbors could still get benefits and services guaranteed to them under the law.

We made DSS agree to:

  • honor the date of phone calls as date of application for applicants to ensure they receive the maximum amounts of benefits allowed;
  • not terminate benefits for missed deadlines; and
  • allow late appeals, and to post clear signage in front of their buildings outlining this information.

The closure sent applicants to the agency’s call center which meant longer wait times for help.

We made sure people understood their eligibility for public benefits, helped them apply and navigate confusing administrative systems, all while ensuring their rights were protected. When programs and services changed, we kept the community informed.

We continue to advocate for extensions and flexibilities that are favorable to beneficiaries, while serving as a watchdog to ensure those policies are appropriately enforced and accessible to applicants of all backgrounds.

‘Things are smoother now.’

Food Insecurity

Before the pandemic, about 12 percent of Mecklenburg residents, including children, were considered food insecure according to Feeding America. The ongoing economic fallout has swollen that number to almost 16 percent who are on the brink of hunger.

In the last year, our staff assisted 371 people and their families with issues accessing food stamps (SNAP benefits), making sure they could successfully get the assistance they needed to remain stable and understood their eligibility for SNAP and other public benefits.

North Carolina was among the earliest adopters of Pandemic EBT (PEBT), which provides food support for families with children eligible for free or reduced-price meals while schools were closed. Though N.C. took many positive steps in creating this program, there have been hurdles and confusion in the implementation. We have been working closely with clients, partner organizations, and the state to monitor issues on the ground and communicate them to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the program works efficiently and families receive these critical benefits quickly.

Healthcare Access

Our health insurance navigators and call-back volunteers assisted over 1000 community members apply and select an affordable health insurance plan for their budget during Open Enrollment Nov. 1 – Dec. 15. Health insurance is critical to safety, stability, and health–particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.

Before the pandemic, one in six Americans had a civil legal problem that negatively impacted their health. We knew that unmet legal needs related to COVID-19 would dramatically worsen health outcomes.

Thirteen percent of Mecklenburg residents don’t have health coverage. More than 500,000 low-income people in N.C. have no options to get health care because they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive financial assistance for health insurance.

COVID-19 forced frontline workers to weigh the risks of working to keep their families stable with the chance of falling critically ill and needing to seek medical care they couldn’t afford. Others lost health insurance benefits with their jobs at a time when access to health care mattered most.

Many who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 did not realize they had the option to apply for health care coverage through a Healthcare Insurance Marketplace Special Enrollment Period (SEP) 60 days after losing coverage. Consequently, many went without it due to their inability to afford private insurance.

Johanna Parra, coordinator of the Advocacy Center’s Health Insurance Navigator Project, was among the first in the nation to discover another option for those who were desperate to get coverage and have peace of mind knowing they could get care if they needed it.

Because all 50 states were under the COVID-19 pandemic national emergency declaration, eligible individuals could apply for coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace, also referred to as “Obamacare,” for a Special Enrollment Period through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA SEP).

Fighting for Equal Access

As soon as Congress passed the CARES Act to provide economic support and COVID-19 relief, there was confusion around the benefits included in the package.

Understanding the CARES Act and COVID Relief: Stimulus Payments and Unemployment Benefits

Families desperate for financial support needed help making sure they received stimulus checks (Economic Impact Payments) issued by the federal government.

Who was eligible? How would payments be distributed? What if payments didn’t arrive?

We answered these questions and more for our clients and the community to ensure everyone eligible for a payment could receive it.

Staff are now helping people address missing stimulus checks and other issues related to the CARES Act as people try to prepare their 2020 tax returns at a time when collection activities and massive job losses strain taxpayers. We are working to resolve these issues and push the IRS to offer specific remedies for various issues related to stimulus checks.

We are also working closely with clients and partner organizations to ensure the latest COVID-19 stimulus opportunities from the American Rescue Plan are understood and correctly received.

Resource guide: Managing unemployment and benefits
We partnered with WCNC Charlotte to produce a resource page to answer questions about stimulus payments and unemployment insurance.

By May of last year, more than one million North Carolinians had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. The volume of applications paired with implementing new assistance programs under the federal CARES Act has caused significant delays, making the process more challenging for applicants.

Working together, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte answered the calls of thousands of frustrated workers to guide them through the application process and appeals. Through direct action and systemic advocacy, these organizations ensured that those who had fallen through the cracks had access to the full payments they deserved.

Prior to the pandemic and historically, North Carolina’s unemployment system made it difficult for eligible residents to receive unemployment benefits, leaving workers with little to no support.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is focused on removing some of these barriers by focusing on unemployment insurance system reform, essential worker benefits, living wages, and promoting workers’ rights in a right to work state—all of which disproportionately impact People of Color (POC).

We are also monitoring how scams and multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) target unemployed and low-income individuals, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

NC Extra Credit Grant


The NC Extra Credit Grant program provides financial support for families struggling to meet the demands of educating and caring for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. For a parent living on minimum wage, $335 is more than he or she will earn in a week. We worked to spread the word to make sure that families who missed the first deadline didn’t miss this final application period and the chance at financial assistance.

Quick action and a strong partnership generated 24,946 applications submitted; $8 million distributed, in just 18 days.

On September 4, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the Extra Credit Grant: an additional $335 dollars in COVID-19 relief for N.C parents. While middle and high-income families automatically received the payment, low-income families had to apply through the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR).

These families had just 29 days to learn about the program and apply. Only 10,000 families did so during the initial application period.

Through a pro bono partnership, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, and Robinson Bradshaw filed a complaint resulting in a court order on Nov.5, 2020 that reopened and extended the application period.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy created a website and extensive communication campaign entitled 335 for NC, which encouraged these parents to apply for the grant through December 7, 2020. More than 32,000 individuals visited the website.

In just 18 days, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and Robinson Bradshaw reached hundreds of thousands of families and delivered 24,946 applications to NCDOR resulting in more than $8 million in aid made available to families who needed it most.

Keeping Families Safe and Protected from Exploitation

Housing Rights

State and federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures have been implemented and continued over the past year to keep people who couldn’t pay their bills safely housed during the pandemic, but they haven’t been enough to protect everyone.

As we watched infection rates rise, courts in North Carolina started working through backlogged foreclosures. Evictions began ramping up, exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing that existed well before the threat of coronavirus. Homeowners who had to take advantage of forbearance because they could not pay their mortgages will eventually have to repay extraordinary balances on their home loans, many of which cannot be modified. 

The Advocacy Center continues to work with families desperate to keep their homes and stay current on their bills to avoid homelessness and financial ruin. We are making sure people understand their rights and obligations with lenders to help them make informed decisions about their situations. We are also educating the community to make sure our neighbors do not fall victim to scams related to COVID-19.

‘The weight that was lifted off’

Entrepreneur, grandmother, personal shopper, caregiver, and church activist. These are a few of the hats that Mrs. C wears on any given week. She keeps copious amounts of to-do lists to keep herself, her family, and her business in order, a skill she says she learned from the staff at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.

Immigrant families were already targets for exploitation before the pandemic. Fear of deportation, language barriers, and lack of traditional financial resources make it harder for immigrants to get assistance and leave them vulnerable.

Owners of substandard housing often rent to immigrants because the owners believe those tenants will be afraid to exercise their rights to habitable housing and to continued tenancy.

Traditional financing options are also often unavailable to immigrant families, which makes them easy targets for predatory financing options such as contracts for deed, options to purchase, installment sales contracts or lease with option contracts. These are enforced through eviction procedures and are complicated to defend without legal assistance.

Immigrants are also targeted for predatory sales of mobile homes, which can be substandard. These situations often involve predatory financing methods on land that is rented and are subject to eviction from the land, also requiring complicated defense.

The pandemic hit immigrants especially hard. Primary earners lost jobs as businesses shut down and those without legal status didn’t qualify for COVID-19 assistance.

“Because of the virus we lost our jobs and that put us behind on rent. And now it’s worse because my husband had an accident and our court date is tomorrow so we don’t know what we’re going to do … We don’t get help from anyone, those of us who are undocumented. A lot of us are going through this.”

– Advocacy Center client Ismar spoke to WFAE as her family faced eviction in July. Attorney Juan Hernandez was able to negotiate an agreement with the family’s landlord to prevent them from losing their home. Listen to the full story.

Thinking they could take advantage of families in desperate situations, landlords continued to threaten and illegally remove families from their homes.

At a time when our court system was operating on a limited capacity and resources for assistance were scarce, we helped our clients avoid homelessness, remain stable and exercise their rights.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy continues to find innovative ways to serve our community. In October, our Immigrant Justice Program partnered with Latin American Coalition to host a “curbside” clinic on the CDC Eviction Moratorium. Over thirty clients attended throughout the day to learn how to claim its protections.

We upheld their rights through our work, which included remedies such as cancellation of the contract, recovery of down payment or money paid above and beyond the fair market rental value, damages for unfair and deceptive trade practices, among others. We also conducted community education programs regarding the rights of immigrant renters related to their housing.

Domestic Violence Protection

While officials urged people to stay home to prevent spreading the virus, home wasn’t the safest option for many in our community.

Immigrant women also face additional barriers to escaping domestic violence or abuse, leaving them feeling trapped in abusive situations.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy helps low-income immigrants living in Mecklenburg County who are victims of domestic violence. A recent Allstate Foundation national survey found that 64 percent of Hispanic women say they know a victim of some type of abuse and 30 percent have personally been victimized.

Reports of domestic violence incidents increased significantly along with the need for legal assistance to get necessary protection early in the pandemic as people. Advocacy Center staff helped survivors and their families navigate administrative changes to get the protections they needed while our courts were closed.

Our Response Continues

We are all weathering the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.   

The past year has made it clear just how critical access to safety, security and stability is for everyone in our community.

But barriers that prevent equal access to these needs persist. And our current safety net is simply not wide or strong enough to support everyone who needs it.

Much like the Great Recession of 2008, the recovery for those hit hardest by COVID-19, those we serve, will take years. Some will never recover.

The need is everywhere. That’s why we’re here, fighting to help families not only stay afloat but also thrive. And we’re not going anywhere.

Today and every day, we continue this hard, necessary work until our community is a stronger, more just and equitable place for ALL. 

Find the latest COVID-19 Updates

Learn about our 2021 Advocacy Agenda

Support Our Work

Access to Justice: ‘Things are smoother now.’

Before COVID-19, Melody had worked at Showmars for 22 years, whipping up the daily specials.

When someone contacts Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for help, they are often struggling to stay afloat in a storm of crisis.

They have a big problem impacting their life but do not know how to fix it. Their problem is a symptom of various unmet legal needs that need to be addressed comprehensively to put that person on a better path.

That was the case for Melody when she contacted Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy last year. We first shared her story last fall.

Like many of our neighbors, she was already struggling when COVID-19 turned her life upside down.

As the primary financial support and caregiver for her family, she was trying to keep up with medical bills and fighting to keep her home as she faced foreclosure for unpaid property taxes from the mid-2000s left from her parents’ estate.

The Advocacy Center had helped her negotiate a payment plan with the county that included forgiveness of a substantial portion of the debt.

“When the pandemic hit, I lost my job,” Melody says. “I was devastated. I thought, ‘How am I going to make those payments?’”

Melody is used to being the one helping others. But when it came to piecing together the support her family needed to remain stable, she could not do it alone. 

Again, she called the Advocacy Center. We connected her with Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte to help her get expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act to support her family.

“I’ve worked all my life and never needed any benefits,” Melody says. “I didn’t really know how that stuff went.”

As part of our work, we learned that Melody’s sister, Wendy’s social security benefits had been terminated despite her disability. The Advocacy Center stepped back in to ensure she was receiving the benefits she was entitled to.

We also helped Wendy apply for food stamps to help their family through this crisis.  Melody would soon turn 65, so we also ensured everything was prepared for her to receive Medicare in a few short months. 

We checked in with Melody recently to see how things are going for her and her family one year into the pandemic.

It’s been hard.

She’s lost eight family members to COVID-19. In addition to not being able to physically mourn with her loved ones, she’s missed the big family get togethers held every year—egg hunts at Easter and a family reunion in September.

Melody says one thing she’s learned through her experience is “it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to not be okay.”

She compares the past year to sailing through a storm and credits the staff at the Advocacy Center for guiding her to calmer waters.

“Just knowing I had them there, I was able to stay in my boat,” she says. “Things are smoother now.”

Despite the past year, she says she is still looking for the silver lining in everything.

She hopes to return to her job whipping up the daily special at Showmars in the City of Charlotte Government Center, where she had worked for 22 years. And she dreams of one day owning her own food truck.

In the meantime, she’s glad to have her health, her family cared for and a place to call if she needs help.

She smiles every time she drives by the Advocacy Center and Legal Aid office on Elizabeth Avenue.

“Look at how much work the people in that teeny little building do!” Melody says. “The work they do, it’s needed. Because sometimes people just need a helping hand. It’s been a blessing.”

Melody, we’re glad we could help. Call us if you need anything.

Your support of the Access to Justice Campaign makes success stories like Melody’s possible. Consider making a contribution today!

Pro Bono Spotlight: Nicholas Lee

Nicholas Lee

Nicholas Lee is an associate at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP and a dedicated pro bono volunteer with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy through the Access to Justice Pro Bono Partners Program.

Beginning in 2014, Nicholas has worked primarily in expunction cases, where his passion in pro bono work has developed.

“My motivation for becoming a lawyer was to have a greater impact on people’s lives,” Lee says. “I’m a firm believer in second chances. I’ve had lots of second chances, and I know how beneficial it can be to have charges expunged.”

Lee not only cherishes that impact he can have in dealing with expunction cases but also appreciates the bond that can be formed with clients. 

“For me, the best part of the process is the opportunity to call the client and say everything was granted,” he says. “For some clients it’s one charge and for others it’s 60-70. They’re always ecstatic.”

Through his experience in pro bono work, Lee encourages other attorneys to volunteer with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy through the Charlotte Pro Bono Triage Partnership.

“Pro bono is important for our profession, and we have a responsibility to help whomever we can,” Lee says. “I would encourage people to jump in. CCLA has great resources. And once you’re willing to do it, we have the ability and resources to get you prepared.”

Thank you to Nicholas Lee for your commitment to pro bono work on behalf of Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy!

Then & Now: A Decade of Justice

In 2010 …

Charlotte was recovering from the Great Recession, which had destabilized thousands of people through job and home loss that eroded financial security.

As a result, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy saw the overall community need for legal assistance increase by 15%, including an overwhelming need from families facing foreclosure.

The Recession’s effects continued to be felt throughout the decade to shape our community, to define the issues of economic mobility and inequity we fight to address, and to steadily impact the people the Advocacy Center serves today.

As we mark the passing of a critical decade for Charlotte, we’re taking a look back at the work we’ve done to build a more just community for everyone in the Charlotte region.

Then

Our name was Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, a name we had been operating under since 1978.

Number of staff: 19

Now

Today we are Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy! In 2017, we changed our name and celebrated 50 years of service.

Number of staff: 50

Our new name reflects our commitment to providing both individual legal representation and systemic change to advance our mission of pursuing justice for those in need.

Growth to Address Systemic Problems in a Changing World

Since 2010, we’ve launched several projects to meet increased demand for assistance, creatively address the root causes of poverty and support our community’s most vulnerable populations, including:

Access to our legal system

Life altering decisions are made every day in our civil legal system that directly impact a person’s chance at a stable life and opportunity.

Despite the gravity of these decisions, no one is guaranteed legal representation in civil legal cases, leaving only those who can afford an attorney with true access to justice.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and legal service organizations across the country fight to provide equal justice for all in a legal system that is currently inaccessible for those who lack the money and resources to navigate it.

Federal funding for legal service organizations through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) peaked in 2010. The funding increase was necessary to support legal service organizations assisting an increasing number of people while having lost key funding resources during the Recession. Funding has not increased since, despite the fact 25 percent more people qualify for legal assistance today than in 2007.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy does not receive LSC funding (learn why), but we advocate for sustained and increased funding for our partners that do, such as Legal Aid of North Carolina.

A 2014 impact report from the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission showed that 2.2 million North Carolinians qualified for civil legal aid services and 80 percent of civil legal needs of low-income people went unmet.

Despite these unmet needs for civil legal aid, the N.C. General Assembly eliminated $1.7 million in funding for the Access to Civil Justice Act that enabled the state’s legal service organizations, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Legal Aid of North Carolina and Pisgah Legal Services, to help people navigate their way out of crisis.

Today, the gap between access and justice is still wide:

  • 1 in 3 Mecklenburg County residents is low-income.
  • 71 percent of low-income people experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year,
  • Only 14 percent received the legal help they needed to address their problem.
  • In Mecklenburg County, there ONE legal aid attorney available to every 11,500 low-income residents between the Advocacy Center and Legal Aid.

Learn about the justice gap and how you can help

Affordable housing and protection from housing displacement

By 2010, the Advocacy Center was assisting families who were fighting foreclosure and trying to put their financial lives back together in the wake of the global financial crisis. When the housing crisis peaked in 2009, more than 12 million homeowners were experiencing negative equity across the U.S.

Today, the Advocacy Center helps families and communities navigate Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis as more people struggle to find and remain in affordable places to live. That assistance includes foreclosure prevention; defense against unfair and deceptive sales and purchases; property tax relief; and impact litigation on behalf of tenants to ensure safe and habitable housing conditions under N.C. law, including a class action lawsuit on behalf of residents of Lake Arbor Apartments.

Welcoming Immigrants into Our Community

Charlotte’s Immigration Court opened in 2008 to serve applicants from North and South Carolina. The Advocacy Center’s Immigrant Justice Program began serving applicants who could not afford legal assistance in the court, which quickly gained a reputation as one of the most hostile in the country.

With the Immigration Working Group, the Advocacy Center began the Immigration Assistance Project in 2010 to help unrepresented people in the court, providing consultation, education and referrals to assist them in court proceedings. Since its creation, it has been a vital legal resource to thousands of people that is not available in most immigration courts.

Today Charlotte’s Immigration Court continues to be one of the most hostile courts for applicants seeking immigration relief with judges known for their high denial rates.

By 2014, violence and instability in Central America generated a wave of unaccompanied migrant children traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum, safety and reunification with family already living in the U.S.

The Advocacy Center launched the Safe Child Immigrant Project to ensure these children had an advocate.

Without our intervention, these children would have had not have had legal assistance to make their case for asylum, special immigrant juvenile status or other forms of relief they were entitled to receive.

Due to an overwhelming backlog, the first green cards from many of these cases were finally granted in 2018, allowing these children and their families to remain safely in the U.S. without fear of return to dangerous situations in their home countries.

This victory is a stark comparison to the current reality for thousands of children seeking relief at the U.S. border. They will not see the same outcome under current federal immigration enforcement, even though they have endured the same hardships and have the same valid claims for relief as these new green card recipients.

The Advocacy Center remains a presence in Immigration Court serving as a legal resource for individuals who otherwise would not receive any assistance and an advocate fighting to ensure dignity, fairness and due process for applicants.

Economic mobility

The Advocacy Center fought to maintain public benefits that stabilize families, while also ensuring access to them with increased demand for social support after the Recession, including SNAP benefits (food stamps) and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Today, the Advocacy Center is still fighting cuts and policies that destabilize families at the federal and state level, while helping families understand what is available under changing laws and policies.

Since 2018, the Advocacy Center has fought changes to the federal Public Charge rule to consider use of public benefits to determine approval for people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. or applying for a green card to become legal permanent residents. Confusion and fear surrounding the rule change has led local families who are eligible to receive public benefits to forego support out of fear. Federal courts halted the rule’s implementation in October 2019, and the Advocacy Center continues to monitor ongoing litigation.

Our Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic is educating N.C. taxpayers on new regulations stemming from federal tax reform passed in 2018, while continuing to help taxpayers protect themselves from scams and fraud.

In conjunction with a new state law changed the waiting period for expunging non-violent misdemeanor and felony criminal convictions in 2017, the Advocacy Center began helping Mecklenburg County residents apply for removal of non-violent, eligible offenses from their criminal records. This project sought to remove barriers to economic mobility that come with having a criminal record. In FY19, we assisted 217 people to expunge criminal records in N.C. and advocated for passage of expanded eligibility for expungements in the N.C. General Assembly.

In 2016, the Advocacy Center partnered with Central Piedmont Community College’s Single Stop program to provide legal assistance that helps students overcome barriers to their education and pursue economic opportunity. In the first two years, the partnership provided $72,855 in legal assistance while obtaining or preserving $103,462 in public benefits for students and their families.

Access to quality, affordable health care

The Advocacy Center has been litigating to ensure families have the health care they are entitled to receive under the law through major cases, including:

  • Pashby v. Cansler, later Pettigrew v. Brajer: The lawsuit, initially named Pashby v. Cansler, was filed in 2011 by the Advocacy Center, Disability Rights N.C. and the National Health Law Program, alleging that the state violated federal Medicaid law and the Americans with Disabilities Act by determining eligibility for personal care services under more restrictive criteria for people living at home than for those who live in institutional settings known as adult care homes. A settlement was reached in 2016, allowing vulnerable citizens who need health services to safely remain in their homes and have their services restored.
  • Pachas v. NCDHHS: The Advocacy Center brought the case on behalf of a terminally ill man, who had been the primary provider for his wife, two young daughters, and elderly in-laws. Pachas was trying to support his family on Social Security disability benefits before eventually qualifying for Medicaid benefits that covered his medical treatment for a stroke and a brain tumor. Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services determined Pachas’ income was above the federal poverty level based on the level of an individual, not for a family, and required him to pay a large deductible on his Medicaid benefits. In 2018, attorneys argued before the N.C. Court of Appeals that the state was violating federal Medicaid law in applying its definition of family size to determine eligibility for benefits. The N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in 2018 and unanimously ruled in favor of the Center to vacate the Court of Appeals ruling. The case is now with the Court of Appeals for a ruling on the merits of the case.
  • Hawkins v. Cohen: The Advocacy Center and the National Health Law Program filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2017 to stop illegal terminations of Medicaid benefits in North Carolina that resulted in a preliminary injunction and a certified class action.  The improper actions included due process violations, failure to reasonably accommodate the disabled, and creating barriers to access for recipients with limited English proficiency. The class action is ongoing. As a result, the state changed its computer system earlier this year to stop Medicaid coverage from automatically terminating when a county worker does not timely complete a required eligibility review. Under this programming change, Medicaid coverage for more than 124,000 cases was extended in the past two months that would otherwise have been terminated without notice.

With the first open enrollment season for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Advocacy Center launched the Health Insurance Navigator project to help consumers understand their options and get the health care they needed under the new law.

Since 2013, we’ve helped thousands of people understand their options and get health coverage, while reducing the state’s uninsured rate. The navigator project has been recognized as a national model and received a visit from Sylvia Burwell, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in 2015.

At the end of 2019, our health insurance navigators completed their seventh open enrollment season, helping residents in Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties understand their coverage options in a changing healthcare landscape to select health plan that meet their individual needs and budget.

The ACA included opportunity for states to expand their Medicaid programs and close the coverage gap for low-income people to insure all Americans. The Advocacy Center began advocating for expansion of the state’s Medicaid program in the N.C. General Assembly, which has failed to act. Expansion would insure an estimated 500,000 NC residents who make too little to afford private health coverage but too much to receive financial assistance paying for coverage. Expansion also would have lowered overall health costs for residents and spurred an estimated $2.9 billion in business growth by 2020.

Today we are still urging the N.C. General Assembly to expand Medicaid so that more residents have access to health care. Residents like Allan.

The N.C. General Assembly approved changes to the state’s Medicaid program in 2015 that privatized the administration of the program. The Advocacy Center has been working with providers and beneficiaries to make sure they understand what the change means and how to continue receiving health care. The Advocacy Center is also monitoring the change to ensure access under the law. The implementation of the new program was supposed to take place in fall 2019, but it has been delayed due to the legislature’s inability to pass a budget.

Protection from exploitation

To improve quality of life and ensure independence, the Advocacy Center has worked to empower seniors through education, legal representation and specific services that enable them to remain self-sufficient, their property unencumbered and their finances protected through the Legal Services for the Elderly program and other projects.

The Advocacy Center’s Consumer Protection program has continually worked to protect low-income people from scams and bad actors taking advantage of vulnerable groups who lack access to resources to understand their rights as consumers.

Immigrants have historically been targets for exploitation in our country. The current administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward immigrants who are undocumented has exacerbated their vulnerability and stoked fear in families, regardless of immigration status.

For 12 years, Mecklenburg County’s 287(g) program facilitated hundreds of deportations by assisting federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in implementing federal immigration enforcement at the local level. The voluntary program directed police to target, arrest and hold residents living in our community without a legal immigration status.

This practice tore families apart, made immigrants vulnerable targets and eroded trust of law enforcement, all while diverting local taxpayer funds away from public safety to enforce federal immigration policy, which is outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement agencies. The Advocacy Center has long believed this policy has harmed our community by undermining public safety, depriving individuals of due process, wasting county resources, and exposing tax payers to potential legal settlements.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Gary McFadden ended the 287(g) program in late 2018 after winning election on the issue. In 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the N.C. General Assembly’s mandate that local sheriffs cooperate with ICE and honor detainer requests. The Advocacy Center continues to monitor local and state policies that negatively impact immigrants in our community.

In 2018, the Advocacy Center fought against ICE presence in our courts after officials arrested a woman and her 16-year-old son at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, leaving her 2-year-old child behind in the court’s day care center as they took her into custody and placed her in deportation proceedings. This woman, Maria, and her son are survivors of domestic violence who were appearing for a hearing in their case.

The arrest became part of a national dialogue on how ICE activity in courthouses negatively impacts public safety and the ability for crime victims, especially victims of domestic violence, to seek justice.

The Charlotte Immigration Court later terminated her deportation case with the support of ICE, allowing Maria and her family to remain in the U.S. as they pursued a U-Visa, which provides protected status to victims of crime. The victory came after months of negotiation with ICE through the partnership of Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Comunidad Colectiva and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

In response to increased ICE activity since 2017, the Advocacy Center has partnered with community groups, including Action NC, Comunidad Colectiva, El Puente Hispano and the Latin American Coalition to help individuals understand their civil rights and provide emergency planning for families in the event of family separation through arrest and deportation.

A decade of justice

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has covered a lot of ground over the  last 10 years, but the gap between access and justice remains wide.

In the decade ahead, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy remains committed to closing that gap by building a more just community where all are treated fairly and have access to legal representation to meet their basic needs and thrive.

In 2020 and beyond…

We will always fight to ensure

  • Access to our legal system
  • Affordable housing and protection from housing displacement
  • All feel welcome in our community
  • Economic mobility
  • Access to quality, affordable health care
  • Protection from exploitation

While the means to accomplishing our mission will change with the needs of our community, our resolve to pursue justice for those in need remains constant. Because we believe …

justice lives here.

Standing in the Gap

Boris “Bluz” Rogers composed and performed this spoken word piece on our community’s justice gap for Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina at the 2019 Justice for ALL breakfast.

Learn more about Charlotte’s Justice Gap

On the corner of 4th and McDowell stands a young woman or young man with papers that say “order to appear” in their hands.

And how they appear or show up in the system is sometimes determined by what their income is. Can you imagine this?

That the condition of your justice depends on just how much justice you can afford?

With one in three Mecklenburg County residents being low-income,

They find themselves coming into civil legal situations that they can’t afford to lose.

So imagine being in their shoes.

Standing in front of the courthouse trying to figure your life out.

And the frustration builds because you begin to feel that the phrase “Justice for all” doesn’t apply at all to you.

Those shoes feel a little uncomfortable,

Like they won’t be enough to run and jump across that gap that holds a lot of low-income residents back,

Holds them back from getting their legal service needs met.

So then, the question is asked:

Which of you will stand in that gap?

When the lack of education and representation is swallowing up residents, who?

Who will stand with the cause put forth over 50 years ago to be a beacon of hope to those with no place to go?

The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy,

Champions of victims of domestic violence and disabled veterans,

A voice for exploited immigrants and homeowners on the brink of foreclosure.

This is more than just having a lawyer in your corner.

It’s having ACCESS to equal justice.

It’s Legal Aid helping the underdog having a fair fight, an even scrap to keep their life on track.

When they started out in ’67, it was a war on poverty, a war we still fight in 2019.

But now we have more advocates and warriors of justice standing behind us, making us feel empowered.

Standing with those residents on the corner of 4th and McDowell,

Ready to enter the courthouse with a new sense of energy,

Ready to be more than just a statistic of the system,

Ready to fight for their rights for equal justice,

Understanding that the gap no longer exists because
all of you are choosing to stand in it.

Uplifting Charlotte’s residents.

Allowing no one else to fall.

Standing for equal access to justice,

And true justice for ALL.

ACCESS Matters: Lisa Howell

Lisa Stockton Howell is a community advocate and president of Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Board of Directors. She supports ACCESS to Justice because she understands the critical role lawyers and the legal system play in the most difficult issues our community faces–poverty, economic mobility and equity.

Listen to Lisa explain her “why” in her own words in remarks she shared at the 2019 Justice for ALL breakfast:

Join Lisa in supporting the Access to Justice Campaign benefiting Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina, who have been fighting for fairness, stability and economic opportunity TOGETHER for more than 50 years.

The Access to Justice Campaign is a one-stop, tax-deductible option to financially support the Charlotte area’s civil legal aid organizations that stabilize families, promote opportunity and fight poverty by ensuring ACCESS to legal assistance for ALL people, not just those who can afford it.

Local and national policy changes have impacted the people Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid serve in critical and unexpected ways. The organizations are nimble and collaborative in addressing these changes that directly impact the lives of the most vulnerable in our community.

Support of the Access to Justice Campaign is the most stable and flexible funding source these organizations rely on both to react quickly to changing needs and to put resources in areas with the greatest need.

The support of people like Lisa makes the hard work of building a more just community possible!

Your gift ensures that ALL people have access to the legal assistance and critical resources they need to make ends meet and thrive.

Join the movement to build a more just community in which all know stability and are empowered to find opportunity.

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Access to Justice Campaign Kicks Off for 2020

Nearly 500 local supporters, attorneys, community leaders and advocates gathered to celebrate ACCESS to legal assistance in our community at the 13th annual Justice for ALL breakfast Oct. 23.

The event officially kicked off the 2020 Access to Justice Campaign benefiting Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina, raising more than $90,000 toward our $500,000 goal.

Timika Shafeek-Horton, chair of the 2020 Access to Justice Campaign, reiterated how critical individual support is for the viability of these organizations and more importantly, our broader community:

“Simply put: the more financial resources each organization has, the more individuals and families in need they can serve in the ways that have the greatest impact. By supporting more families, our community will be stronger for everyone as we work together to address issues of equity, fairness, mobility and opportunity.”

Check out highlights from
Justice for ALL 2019!

Join the movement to build a more just community in which all know stability and are empowered to find opportunity.

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The Access to Justice Campaign is currently underway and runs through the end of the year. Those who contribute a leadership gift of $1,000 or more by November 30 will be recognized as Access to Justice Champions during #GivingTuesdayCLT 2019 on December 3.

Why support the
Access to Justice Campaign

There is a justice gap in Mecklenburg County, and it plays a role in our community’s stability. One in three residents is low-income, and 71 percent of low-income residents are likely experiencing a civil legal issue that has significantly affected their lives.

However, with limited resources between the Advocacy Center and Legal Aid, there is one legal aid attorney for every 11,500 low-income residents. Families are in desperate need of legal assistance, but they can’t afford it. A friend can’t help; a church can’t help; a social worker can’t help—these families need a lawyer who understands what to do in front of a judge when stability is on the line.

Last year’s campaign raised more than $500,000 thanks to the generous support of the community and members of the Mecklenburg County Bar.

The Advocacy Center and Legal Aid use these funds to provide coordinated legal assistance that responds to rapidly changing community needs.

The Access to Justice Campaign is the most stable funding source these organizations depend on to serve the community because it it provides flexibility when traditional funding sources go away.

Together, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina fight on their behalf every day to ensure fairness under the law that preserves stability and allows them make ends meet.