About the Series
Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of an upcoming conference on October 17, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.
This week, we are delighted to share our interview with the Sandhya Reju Boyd, Executive Director of Brooklyn Jubilee – a faith-based, Christian organization dedicated to pursuing social and economic justice throughout Brooklyn. The interview was conducted at Brooklyn Jubilee’s Sandy relief operations trailer in Coney Island.
JH: How did you come to work at Brooklyn Jubilee? How did it start, and how did you get involved?
SB: I started out as a lawyer in civil legal services and I loved it, but within a year or two of working in traditional legal services settings, I found that something was missing for me and I felt like something was missing for my clients as well, and that was the ability to connect on a spiritual level. On a typical day at Brooklyn Jubilee someone comes to us in crisis, and we talk to them about their legal problem, but at the end of the meeting we will offer to pray for them. For the vast majority of our clients, this isn’t anything approaching evangelism – they’re churchgoers themselves. We’re actually connecting with them on a human level that goes beyond their legal problem and creating a really powerful bond between lawyer and client; we share mutual respect, not just for each other as people, citizens, or neighbors, but as souls.
It is exciting that all of those things came together and we certainly give God all the credit. I loved all my years working for Legal Services, but there’s something special about what we’re doing. We’ve attracted a lot of staff who were already church-based people, so this is special for us as well.
JH: Prior to Sandy, what services did Brooklyn Jubilee provide?
SB: We have sites at six food pantries, soup kitchens, and community centers all around Brooklyn—including the trailer we’re in now. The other sites are in Park Slope, Flatbush, and Brownsville. We go to places that already provide services and have developed relationships with the community.
Every other month, we take over the meal at a soup kitchen in Flatbush and offer a diabetic-friendly meal that’s low-calorie, low-cost, and dietician approved. We bring a dietician to the meal who chats with people about the food and general nutrition, and we also bring a doctor and a lawyer. We’ve been doing this for a little over a year and the response from the community has been very positive – generally 90+% of the people say they really like the meal and 80-90% say they intend to prepare the meal at home. We give them the recipes and are hoping to add a cookbook so people can make all our recipes at home.
Integration of services is a big part of our philosophy. We don’t see ourselves as just a law firm but as part of a community network of providers; we want to integrate all of those potential services (for example, helping the formerly incarcerated find job training programs) in what we’re doing.
We get every legal issue under the sun, from “where do I get a job” to “I have an immigration problem” to “I got hit by a bus”. We mostly represent people facing eviction and with public benefits problems; that has stayed pretty consistent for seven years.
JH: Can you talk about what Brooklyn Jubilee did in the immediate aftermath of Sandy? What are you most proud of, and what was most successful?
SB: Three days after the storm, Brooklyn Jubilee staff and volunteers went out to the evacuation centers to see how we could help. From being here in New York after September 11th, I knew that people would have a lot of legal questions – things like how to break a lease and what kind of compensation are victims entitled to.
We visited a lot of evacuation centers in Brooklyn. They were centralizing people into three major centers; the two in Park Slope were getting a lot of attention, but no one was going to the FDR High School Center in Bensonhurst. We went there and spoke with evacuees about their legal rights. We held sessions on Friday and Saturday after the storm and over the next few days we gave over 100 people one-on-one legal advice.
We started working with other legal services groups; we went to hotels and asked if there were evacuees who needed to talk to someone. And we found out about the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, and two weeks after the storm we hosted a legal info session there. We started going there twice a week, and then starting December 31st we were there five days a week. I’m very proud that we’ve been able to provide advice and representation for hundreds of people in the months after the storm and how quickly we got on the ground.
We’re close to $200,000 that we have either recovered or helped people save post-Sandy on recovery from insurance and FEMA, as well as disaster unemployment and rent abatements for tenants.
JH: What do you think the legal community could have done better? What are the lessons if/when future storms hit?
SB: There were a lot of efforts to share resources and information with each other, but there was not enough willingness to work together on cases. There’s a certain sense of pride, which is not unwarranted, but I think in this sort of a crisis it’s important to recognize that it isn’t so much about the legal process but about a community recovering from trauma and that through working together with other organizations we can do more than just draft legal papers – we can actually rebuild community relationships.
Unfortunately, I felt that there were more turf wars around legal cases than there needed to be. It caused confusion and prevented some folks in need of services from receiving them because providers struggled to work together on cases. That’s the one thing I can say I was disappointed with the legal services community as a whole. There wasn’t enough collaboration on casework.
I hope that next time around there would be more trust between providers. We can share credit for hard work, and we can do more together than we can apart.
JH: Nine months after Sandy, what are the big issues and challenges people are still facing?
SB: The biggest legal issue that we’re still working on is homeowner stock, due primarily to insufficient insurance recovery and contractor problems. Contractors did poor work, and now people have to find new contractors to redo the work but don’t have the money to pay. The contractor problems are particularly challenging because a lot of contractors were unlicensed—unbeknownst to the homeowners. So we are filing complaints with the Attorney General, calling contractors, and engaging attorneys.
Another consistent problem is people who were displaced and are struggling to re-establish themselves; difficulties with renewing FEMA rental assistance or just finding an apartment they can afford, and this is exasperated by the fact that many of them were already impoverished.
JH: On volunteers, almost a year after the storm, how can pro bono attorneys be helpful?
SB: Pro bono attorneys have been great following-up on cases, from calling clients to flesh out stories to drafting FEMA letters or affidavits. One of the challenges of engaging volunteers is most providers are looking to refer work out, but we’ve kept all of our volunteering in house—everything is supervised by Brooklyn Jubilee staff. We stay engaged and supervise in all of the cases; otherwise, it limits the amount people who are willing volunteer.
I think having people available, and then getting firms to take on pro bono insurance matters is probably a little ambitious, but having them help us as a legal services community to assess cases and to advise us on case strategy – that has been fantastic. We met with one attorney from an insurance firm and we talked through all of the insurance cases we had at the time, and it was so instructive getting someone with that kind of experience.
Firms willing to take contractors to court would be really helpful, because I don’t know any legal services providers that have the resources to do it.
JH: Same question for law students—how can they contribute to what Brooklyn Jubilee does?
SB: A lot of it is the same: being available for intake, following up on cases by talking to clients, drafting FEMA affidavits and letters, or writing motions and HP petitions for Housing Court. This summer we had students working on insurance cases, drafting letters to claims representatives and following up with clients telling them to get another contractor estimate.
JH: Where do you hope to go from here?
SB: In terms of Sandy, we opened a new site on July 29th and we’ll be working with Legal Services – NYC, providing disaster relief services to homeowners in Sheepshead Bay and Canarsie, where there hasn’t been a strong, on-sight legal presence. We’ll be at Investor’s Bank in Sheepshead Bay; they are giving us their conference room every Monday evening.
We’ll definitely be in Coney Island through the end of the year. We’re still getting new people in every week with disaster issues, whether its homeowners who have given up on trying to do things on their own, people we’ve been working with for months whose cases aren’t getting traction, or cases we’ve been working on that are going well. I feel like we’re going to get another disaster of Sandy proportions before too long, and I think the expertise we’ve developed this time is going to be needed again much too soon.