Charles Johnson has a knack for finding students in need. During his 15 years as a security worker at North Dallas High School, he has taken in 39 teenagers who had nowhere else to go. He allows them to stay at his Oak Cliff home, where he lives with his mother. He’s a man of simple means who believes in helping others. One morning, he found one of his most recent tenants.
Ariel came to the United States from Honduras. He joined his sister and her 2-year-old daughter. His sister was deported after stealing food to feed them. Scared and alone, Ariel started looking for help. When Johnson saw him, he could tell he was hungry and in trouble. Ariel barely spoke English, but he tried his best to explain the situation. He had come here to escape a drug gang that had killed two family members. The gang shot up their house and was looking for him. Ariel was going to be sent back, which meant certain death.
Johnson doesn’t make much money. What little he earns goes to cover the cost of caring for his students. He didn’t know how he could afford an attorney. Johnson first went to a large law firm. They were sympathetic but couldn’t immediately take the case. To keep Ariel in the country, a family court first needed to award Johnson conservatorship, which required written permission from the parents in Honduras. But Johnson couldn’t find them, and the order needed to be issued before Ariel turned 18, only days away.
The large firm referred Johnson to another, quite possibly the smallest, least profitable, and hardest-working law firm in downtown Dallas. CitySquare’s LAW (Legal Action Works) Center helps low-income Dallas families and has become an integral part of CitySquare’s mission to strike at the root causes of poverty in Dallas. The LAW Center office can be best described by what it lacks: no fine wood crown molding, no library full of thick books, and no leather couches. Efficiency is key, and no dollar is wasted on extravagances. On days when the attorneys aren’t in trial, the dress code is a polo shirt and jeans.
At the moment, LAW Center has three attorneys and two support staff. The offices are on the third floor of CityWalk@Akard, where they are close to some of their clients. The decor is plain and serviceable. Each office is no larger than a confessional. Boxes of file folders tower next to the desks. College degrees and children’s art adorn the walls. The doors are always open, and staff meetings are held only when the stars align with their schedules. It’s the energy of type-A personalities, passionate and in close quarters.
Michelle Heron was assigned Ariel’s case, and she went to work. She rushed to file the paperwork and obtain legal permission from the child’s parents, who were difficult to locate because they, too, were hiding from the gang. The problem was even more complicated because they lacked access to a phone or fax. Eventually, Heron was able to get in contact with Ariel’s aunt who worked for someone who owned a fax machine. Salvation.
Ariel still lives with Johnson. Ariel’s niece stays with family friends. The family is processing her immigration as well. Ariel does well in school. He’s a member of the Junior ROTC, attends church regularly, and wants to play sports next year if he’s allowed to remain in the country. Upon graduation, he says he would like to be a mechanic or join the military. Johnson gives praise to the LAW Center. “They took care of my family,” Johnson says.
People often misunderstand the needs of the poor. Charitable organizations can waste resources treating symptoms without fixing the unjust system that created the poverty. They feed the hungry without fixing the famine. Moved by the plight of poor families, businessman Jim Sowell and Preston Road Church of Christ launched the Central Dallas Food Pantry in 1988, but they soon realized that the needs of the poor were far more complex than just hunger. A food pantry wasn’t enough.
In 1994, Larry James stepped in as president and CEO of the nonprofit. They changed the name to Central Dallas Ministries and expanded in other areas, adding a workforce component to the organization. More recently, they changed their name to CitySquare and added low-income housing. Their building, CityWalk@Akard, is the first affordable housing development in downtown Dallas in living memory. But housing wasn’t enough.
“We’re trying to go way beyond charity,” James says. The organization uses a learn-by-listening approach. James trusts that the poor know their situations better than anyone. “From the early going, we were hearing people ask about legal representation.” With criminal cases, CitySquare can refer people to the public defender’s office, but many wanted to know about civil court. So the organization created the LAW Center, and CitySquare found where it could make its greatest impact in fighting poverty.
Legal issues can be devastating and are compounded when people attempt to represent themselves or ignore the problem, which is often the case with the impoverished. “Poor people, low-income people, do not show up in civil and family law courts in Dallas County with much of a chance,” James says. “When they show up with our lawyers, we almost never lose. We settle a lot of stuff out of court. But when we go to court, since ’99 I can count on two hands the number of times it got handed back to us. We kick butt, because these lawyers are
Ken Koonce joined the LAW Center as a calling of faith. He had worked in business litigation, handling collections, business torts, and insurance disputes. It was good work, but none of it satisfied his need to help others. As James explains it, “Ken was tired and disillusioned. He came to me. He said, ‘I want to move into nonprofit work and I want to work with you guys doing something.’ ” James eventually convinced Koonce to return to where his talents were. “I finally told him, ‘Ken, you’re going to remain frustrated because your talent and your gift is the law.’ ” Koonce decided to give his law career a second chance as the director of CitySquare’s program in 2005. He describes his calling this way: “It’s an opportunity I never saw coming but didn’t want to refuse.”
Janice Schwartz says she always had a hard time charging clients. She wanted to do as much pro bono work as possible, but in her private practice she could take only one or two cases at a time. Schwartz had a real sense that her work as a lawyer was to help people. Schwartz took a year off to attend seminary school at TCU. When she discovered the LAW Center, she was convinced she had found where she belonged. “It was a God thing. It really was,” she says. Now her workload is about 55 to 60 cases at any given time.
Michelle Heron saw a growing need to help people who had slipped from the middle class and started her own family law practice, modeling it after the LAW Center. But low-cost legal support is a difficult model to maintain outside the nonprofit sector. When she told Koonce she admired the work that LAW Center did, he told her they had an opening.
“I’ve been an attorney for 18 years,” Heron says. “Family law at my own firm was a lot more uncontested cases. People who are in major fights end up on the LAW Center’s doorstep. And it’s hard to take a huge case–load of major fights where you’ve got people pounding you every day with papers.” The work has been challenging and rewarding. “You feel like you’re helping people who need it. These are people who would not find help anyplace else. Sometimes I really am scared to think about what would happen if there wasn’t somebody there to help them.”
LAW Center intentionally has a broad reach. Its clients range from the poorest of the poor to working middle class. How LAW Center charges reflects this range. About half the cases it takes are pro bono. The other half are offered on a sliding scale or with low flat fees.
LAW Center is sometimes confused with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal services to those eligible. But there’s a distinction between the two groups. Legal Aid will help anyone below the poverty level but is not able to assist anyone past that point. A huge gap exists between poverty and those who can afford a $600-an-hour downtown law office. LAW Center has no such restrictions. The two groups at times can complement each other. In some instances, Legal Aid may need an outside pro bono attorney. Legal Aid, for example, may represent a parent while LAW Center represents the child. And if there’s a conflict where one person already has Legal Aid, the other person needs representation, too. They can get this from LAW Center.
Additionally, CitySquare offers a comprehensive approach with its housing and workforce services. “We’re trying to do a holistic case management approach for all of our clients,” Heron says. “So it’s not piecemeal, just food without looking at the rest of it. No, they look at the person as a whole to see if there is some child support she could get. Are there some other benefits?” Heron laughs a tired laugh. “We do not have to advertise. Currently, we have a waiting list 70 deep.”
The success stories at CitySquare’s LAW Center are numerous. People call when they are at their greatest need, when they can no longer
ignore or delay the problem. More than 80 percent of the cases deal with family law, and the cases read like an unruly knot of worst-case scenarios. There’s the man whose son was practically stolen from him by the mother’s grandparents, after the mother died in a car accident. In their grief, the grandparents sought full legal custody. There was the divorced couple with two kids. The woman started living with a trucker and took the youngest of their sons traveling across the country. There was the stay-at-home mother whose husband filed for divorce and left her with all the bills and even turned off the electricity at the house. She did not have money to pay for the heat, much less an attorney.
Somehow Koonce, Schwartz, and Heron are able to untangle the mess. They work to set better boundaries or place the children with the appropriate parent. Sometimes, they convince the court to award legal authority to another relative, to demand child support, spousal maintenance, or dictate the terms of visitation.
Larry James is convinced LAW Center gets great results on behalf of CitySquare, but funding is a continual struggle. “It’s hard to get people to give money to a law firm, because it’s not as popular as funding health care for kids,” he says. “It’s not as popular as workforce training stuff or children who are hungry, but underneath the law firm’s canopy are all these issues. Sometimes, good legal representation is what a person needs to get jumpstarted back on the road. ”
LAW Center would like to expand, but now the challenge is simply maintaining its efforts. Through the years, donations have dropped with almost every nonprofit organization. Legal organizations are especially challenged. The United Way reclassified how it does grants and dropped legal services. LAW Center has lost funding the last two cycles.
“There are grants out there for food all day long,” Heron says. “There are grants for housing. But people don’t realize that sometimes they need the child support to be able to get their own food. They need the spousal maintenance and payment from his retirement plan to afford their own housing. Maybe we wouldn’t have the same issues of needing to give if we helped them support themselves. We’re trying to structure their lives from a legal perspective so they can be on their own and free of reliance on the food pantries, housing systems, and things like that, because this is what they’re entitled to. In some respects, they shouldn’t have to go to food pantries and housing assistance if they got the money they were supposed to get to begin with.”
Write to David Hopkins at thatdavidhopkins.com.