East Bay Community Law Center Confronts COVID-19’s Far-Reaching Implications

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April 28, 2020

Berkeley Law

Gwyneth K. Shaw

For more than 30 years, the East Bay Community Law Center has been a lifeline for Alameda County residents who need critical legal services. As the COVID-19 crisis grips the region, the center’s staffers are finding new angles for advocacy—and seizing the chance to shape the post-coronavirus landscape.

The stay-at-home order across the Bay Area forced the organization to close its office, but EBCLC is still taking new clients and bringing new proposals to state and local governments. Over the last several weeks, the center has pushed for eviction moratoriums and better health and safety measures for the unhoused locally; ramped up its education advocacy efforts to include students impacted by widespread school closures; helped small businesses access federal aid; angled to protect the public benefits coming from the federal government; and continued its work with undocumented immigrants.

It’s all part of EBCLC’s core mission. Founded by Berkeley Law students in 1988, the center is now the now the East Bay’s largest legal services provider as well as the school’s biggest clinical offering. More than 100 students each year help the center provide needed legal services in eight areas, including economic justice, immigration, and housing.

“We are about how to disrupt those systems, to make them more equitable,” says Executive Director Zoë Polk, who took the helm at EBCLC in January. “COVID-19, in its breathtaking devastation, has stopped business as usual. So we have an opportunity, an opening, to really push for all the ways these systems have been failing our clients—particularly people of color—to change.”

In early March, the center sent a letter to local governments with a list of urgent requests, including stopping evictions, car towing, and ticketing people for failing to appear in court. The letter also asked the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to stop wage garnishments and for local “sanctuary cities” to reaffirm their commitment to protecting the undocumented.

Closing the physical office when people still needed services “was a big deal to us,” Polk says. But the staff has stayed connected, with one another and with clients, and is still taking new clients even as local governments, courts, and schools have been shuttered.

Now, clinic staff are working to ameliorate the impact of the crisis on its clients, and push local and state officials to rethink ideas that, until a few weeks ago, were politically untenable.

“We are saying, ‘Let’s plan, in this moment, how are things going to be different when we go back into court,’” Polk says. “Prosecuting hundreds of evictions a day was not healthy before. It’s certainly not going to be appropriate once the courts reopen. We do have this opportunity now, because for better or for worse, public officials and people who are not usually affected by these problems are now seeing them in a very concrete way.

“This is the framing that EBLC has been using for decades. I think we’re just in a different era now—our collective health is bound up in us getting it right.”

A resource for immigrants

Jeanette Muñoz, a paralegal in the EBCLC’s Immigration Clinic, says her clients’ needs have remained extremely high. But because of the shelter-in-place order, she now lacks a safe space to meet with them. Especially with a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected any day on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, the need to process applications and renewals remains urgent.

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