Pisgah Legal Services celebrates 40 years of offering legal assistance to some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Their mission is and always was to pursue justice by providing legal assistance and advocacy to help low-income people in Western North Carolina meet their basic needs and improve their lives.
It all started in 1967 when the Legal Aid Society of Buncombe County was formed. From 1970 to 1977, a Legal Aid Committee formalized a referral system to distribute indigent cases and private attorneys who represented them pro bono. In January 1978 the Legal Aid Service of the Buncombe County Bar Association served its first client, working out of the Buncombe County Courthouse. In 1981 the Legal Aid Services adopted the name Pisgah Legal Services.
Jim Barrett, executive director for Pisgah Legal Services said in addition to their 40th anniversary Pisgah Legal Services is celebrating the fact that with the help of a pool of approximately 300 volunteer lawyers and 60 staff members they now serve over 15,000 people a year. “Still, there are more than 100,000 people eligible for our services, so we have a way to go to do more,” he said. “But we’re putting a dent in the civil legal needs of people who can’t afford a lawyer.”
Pisgah Legal Services’ main service area now covers six Western North Carolina counties, with limited services in 17 counties. “We have an attorney and legal assistant at the Buncombe County Family Justice Center in Asheville, an attorney at the Family Justice Center in Hendersonville with two additional attorneys at the Pisgah Legal Services office in Hendersonville, and an attorney working with the new Transylvania Family Resource Center in Brevard. We also have two attorneys in our Rutherford office,” Barrett said. They also serve Polk County and have an office in Madison County. The largest office is in Asheville that serves the entire 17 county area.
Pisgah Legal Services runs eight programs. Barrett said the Justice for All Project handles immigration work. “That has been in great demand whenever ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has been active in our area. Our lawyers help families assign power of attorney over their children to a designated caregiver of their choice, so if the parents are detained another adult has the authority to make decisions about their children’s healthcare or schooling arrangements. It eases the parents’ minds and avoids the need for foster care.”
He said their biggest program is one that prevents domestic violence and abuse. “Last year it represented about 40 percent of our cases. It’s a huge problem we have in an area where we’ve received federal grant money that comes with restrictions and matching requirements, one reason we want to attract donations.” The grant program only funds 80 percent of staff costs, leaving the remaining 20 percent plus overhead to be covered by donations. These cases involve helping people who’ve been abused secure protective orders, and sometimes custody of their children.
Pisgah Legal Services’ next largest program addresses housing issues and homelessness prevention. “We surveyed the number of eviction cases in 2016 at almost 2,200. Last year we lost $535,000 in state funding, and the vast majority of that money was helping rehabilitated people with disabilities and handicaps secure ‘reasonable accommodations’ in applying for housing.”
Pisgah Legal Services’ Healthcare Program assists people in buying health insurance on a sliding scale under the Affordable Care Act. “Volunteers and staff on the non-legal side are handling that, but on the legal side we have Project SOAR (Social Security Outreach, Access and Recovery), assisting adults who are homeless with Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income applications.”
The newest aspect of Pisgah Legal Services’ Healthcare Program is that they have an attorney embedded at RHA Health Services (originally “Rural Housing Authority”) on Biltmore Avenue, a regional entity that provides services for people with behavioral health challenges. They also have an attorney embedded at MAHEC (Mountain Area Health Education Center) with an office in the Ob-Gyn (obstetrics and gynecology) clinic that delivers most of the Medicaid births in Western North Carolina.
The Elder Law Program serves people 60 and older to help them stay in their homes as long as possible, and to assist in end of life planning. The Children’s Law Project helps disadvantaged children with housing and abuse issues.
This month, Barrett will have served on the Pisgah Legal Services staff for 35 years. At their annual Jazz for Justice event, Barrett was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the N.C. governor’s highest civilian honor. To learn more about Pisgah Legal Services visit their website at www.PisgahLegal.org.
By Mark-Ellis Bennett