The Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) has experienced budget cuts, followed by the loss of grant funding, yet continues to assist an increasing number of clients.
The nonprofit legal organization assists low-income county residents with civil matters, and has an office in Union which will serve nearly 2,000 area residents by the end of the year.
The office serves Franklin, Warren, Washington and Lincoln counties.
According to Dan Glazier, executive director of LSEM, there is a 97 percent success rate for clients represented by staff at the Union office.
“Throughout the services area we have been very successful with who we are able to represent and we get good results,” he said, “but resources continue to be a challenge.”
In Franklin County the LSEM has helped clients recover, or avoid unfair debt, totaling about $75,000. Within the entire Union coverage area, the total is $255,000 so far this year.
That is despite the a 15 percent cut, or $321,000, in March to the LSEM from the corporation’s funds.
Included in the funds recovered are child support and “spousal maintenance” payments, as well as “zombie debt” which some collectors try to unfairly recover from elderly, said Glazier.
“They raise the debt from grave, like a zombie, and prey on senior citizens,” he said. “They say they owe that debt they didn’t even know about.”
Jon Althauser, managing attorney at the Union branch, said the target of zombie debt generally are elderly residents on fixed incomes.
“It really does weigh on them to find out they have debt — even if it doesn’t exist, or they may not even owe it,” said Althauser. “We help give them a lot of relief.”
Glazier added that census figures from 2000 compared to 2010 show that the poverty rate in Franklin County has doubled.
“Clearly we are seeing, consistently throughout our service area, that poverty numbers are up,” he said. “As a reflection of that we are seeing growing numbers of low income folks needing services.”
Althauser noted that there is a rising number of “new poor” in this area.
“It seems to be more common that clients are, for the first time, dealing with being in poverty,” he said. “That is because of loss of employment or benefits run out.”
A large number of domestic violence cases are handled in the Union office, according to Althauser.
“Family law is the bulk of what we do,” he explained. “Domestic violence never leaves front page and it is important to get people in safe environments.”
That is why Althauser and the staff in his office build relationships with organizations such as ALIVE.
Glazier added that there are new challenges, and possibly cuts, as the federal government draws closer to the “fiscal cliff.”
“We don’t know what is on the other edge of cliff,” he said. “Social services, including our own, may experience some additional cuts.”
Nationwide, Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) budget was cut from $350 million to $210 million. That is the largest cut to the service since 1981.
The LSC is the largest funding source of the LSEM. There are a total of 136 nonprofit legal aid programs across the nation that receive funding from LSC.
The LSEM receives funding from private donors, as well as the United Way, but the majority of the funding is from the federal government, Glazier said.
“We very much appreciate continued support, but additional support from the area is needed,” he said.
Glazier said the organization still accepts donations. People can learn more about the LSEM, or donate by visiting www.lsem.org.