In the wake of the housing and eviction crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a call to action to the legal profession to address access to justice and increase housing stability in communities across the nation.
Nearly five months later, at a virtual event on Jan. 28, Wake Forest Law student Katie Merlin (JD ’22) spoke to senior administration officials about Wake Forest Law’s efforts to swiftly answer that call by partnering with Wake Forest School of Medicine and others across the University and local community to respond to the crisis and provide legal services to Winston-Salem residents at risk of eviction.
The virtual event convened and recognized the 99 law schools who answered the call to action, and included remarks from Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, and Senior Advisor to the President and American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling, among others.
“You have assisted your clients and your communities at a time when they needed it the most, when our country needed it the most,” said Garland, addressing the law school deans, students, and clinical professors in attendance. “I thank you for the work you have already done, but I know I do not need to tell you that there is so much more to do.”
It was a point also underscored by Gupta, who said she was inspired by the impact that attendees had made on their communities.
“The infrastructure you have built to respond to the attorney general’s call will prove critical as the Justice Department continues to work to increase access to justice for all Americans,” said Gupta.
As a third-year law student who helped organize Wake Forest Law’s response, Merlin recounted how Wake Forest Law Dean Jane Aiken quickly mobilized the law school’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic and Pro Bono Program to implement eviction prevention efforts in partnership with Wake Forest School of Medicine, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, and Legal Aid of North Carolina.
“I am incredibly proud of the efforts of our law students, faculty members, and University and community partners and their dedication to serving those at risk of eviction in our community,” said Aiken following the event. “At its core, our role as lawyers is to use our skills, knowledge, and talents to deliver effective and equitable legal services and respond to the call for justice, especially in times of crisis. All those at Wake Forest Law and the numerous other law schools that have contributed to eviction prevention efforts are a testament to the meaningful impact we can make, especially when we come together to provide much-needed support.”
Ahead of her remarks, Merlin was introduced by Emily Benfer, a Senior Policy Advisor to the White House and the American Rescue Plan Implementation Team who is currently on a leave of absence from her position as a visiting professor of law and public health at Wake Forest. Benfer began laying the foundation for the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic in 2020, working with Dr. Kimberly Montez, assistant professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine, who co-directs the Health Equity Certificate Program and directs the Health Justice Advocacy Certificate Program in conjunction with Wake Forest Law.
“As health care providers, we increasingly recognize that unmet legal needs negatively affect patient and family health, including housing instability and eviction,” said Dr. Montez. “Lawyers are important members of our health care team. The Medical-Legal Partnership has expanded our toolbox to not only provide more effective health care to all children and families, but better equip medical students, residents, and faculty with the knowledge and skills to address health-harming legal needs.”
Over the past five months, 64 law students collaborated with Wake Forest University undergraduate and medical students, as well as local medical providers, to provide more than 820 hours of direct outreach and representation serving 110 households.
“Our collaboration with frontline health care providers enabled us to reach those high-risk families and create a holistic, community-wide approach to the housing crisis,” Merlin told attendees. “Together, we ensured the families had the foundational rock and security of a home at a time when the risk of homelessness was at its height.”
For Associate Clinical Professor Allyson Gold, who directs the law school’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic — a collaboration with Wake Forest School of Medicine, Wake Forest Baptist’s Downtown Health Plaza clinic, and Legal Aid of North Carolina — it was clear that connecting individuals in need with Emergency Rental Assistance was the most direct and timely way to protect tenants from the imminent threat of eviction.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the affordable housing and access to justice crises, placing millions of people across the country at risk of homelessness and displacement. When I joined the Wake Forest Law faculty in July 2021, it became clear that the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic could respond to the attorney general’s call to action by helping clients exercise their rights to Emergency Rental Assistance,” said Gold. “I have been so impressed by our law students. They immediately heeded the call, collaborating with community partners and students from the School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences to implement a holistic approach to tenant advocacy, while working to achieve housing justice and health equity.”
Implementing a multi-faceted approach, clinic students partnered with Forsyth County’s ERA program to create dual-language flyers and posters, educate the community, and — with medical and undergraduate students — host application assistance workshops in an effort to increase the program’s visibility and accessibility for tenants in need. The clinic also trained more than 50 Wake Forest Baptist medical providers at the Downtown Health Plaza clinic, a community health center whose patient population is predominantly low-income individuals and families, many of whom are best served in Spanish, to screen patients for eviction risk and refer them to the law school’s clinic for help with ERA applications and other legal assistance.
For Monica Brown, associate director of operations for the Downtown Health Plaza, having law students on-site that could directly assist patients with their applications was essential.
“Because of our longstanding and positive efforts with the Medical-Legal Partnership, it was an easy ‘yes’ to offer a legal clinic specifically aimed at helping our patients remain in their homes during the pandemic,” said Brown. “Our patients face enormous stressors on a daily basis, so any time we can make resources available and remove barriers to fully utilizing that resource, it is a win-win for everyone involved.”
Students participating in Wake Forest Law’s Pro Bono Project also collaborated with Legal Aid of North Carolina to develop know-your-rights flyers and a housing law manual for tenants and pro bono attorneys.
Merlin described how working to provide legal assistance to those at risk of eviction has been transformational for her, sharing the story of one client who she helped to avoid eviction in November 2021.
“I know I will never forget the relief in his voice when I called to tell him that his application had been approved, and that he and his family would be able to spend the holidays at home without fear of displacement,” said Merlin.
It’s among the experiences that contributed to Merlin’s decision to dedicate her career “to the pursuit of housing and health justice and equity, and ending the cycle of trauma associated with eviction.”
“I think for all of us here today, this work and the lived experiences of our clients will continue to guide us in the unyielding effort to achieve housing security and equal justice,” said Merlin.
In his remarks addressing the law school attendees, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff underscored their role in amplifying the importance of expanding access to justice.
“Your work is just so vital right now, because right now as we speak, for so many people representation is literally the difference between keeping a roof over their family or being pushed out into the streets,” said Emhoff.
View the White House fact sheet on law schools’ responses to the Attorney General’s Call to Action to the Legal Profession.
View a recording of the virtual event.
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