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Joe Surkiewicz: St. Ambrose expands legal services beyond foreclosure

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Baltimore’s oldest nonprofit serving the housing needs of the city and state’s low-income residents, is reinvigorating its legal services program.

That means St. Ambrose is staffing up — and expanding its services beyond helping homeowners threatened with foreclosure.

“Our goal is to help the agency do what we do better. We want to be effective, efficient and inventive,” said Executive Director Gerard J. Joab. “Today, people with housing problems face more issues. For example, there are so many female heads of households not getting child support. And it’s a cause of foreclosure.”

Joab, who joined St. Ambrose in late 2011, is on his second stint as the director of a housing program. A Baltimore native, he was formerly head of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) of Greater Newark and Jersey City, which provides funding and technical assistance for community development corporations.

“In my years of doing housing, this is the first time that I’ve worked in an agency that provides both housing counseling and legal services,” he said. “It just makes sense that they should be wrapped together.”

Getting the legal program on track is Jeanette Cole, who joined St. Ambrose last year as director of legal services.

“The plan is not only to address foreclosure head-on, but to assist people before the problems lead to foreclosure — such as with consumer debt and credit reports,” Cole said. “When people are in financial distress, an appointment to see a lawyer is not always a priority, or even a hurdle they think they have to deal with. So it pays to be proactive. And it helps to have housing counselors, who the clients see first and are often referred to a lawyer here.”

Currently, Cole has one staff attorney and is in the process of hiring another. “We’re going out into the community, working with community organizers and offering a lawyer for free sitting at a desk and talking to clients,” she said.

Preventative issues that can be resolved with the help of a lawyer include helping people get the public benefits they’re entitled to.

“Sometimes it’s a legal issue that’s preventing people from being employed, such as Homeland Security challenges or … a criminal record that prevents people from competing for jobs,” said Joab, who took over as executive director after St. Ambrose founder Vincent Quayle retired.

“It’s not a straight line to foreclosure, but a few steps away,” he continued. “Under-employment, training and foreclosure are tied to unemployment.”

One recent client is a woman who has been raising her grandchild for 10 years.

“The father was paying the mother child support, but not the grandmother,” Cole said. “With our assistance, she got the pro se forms and a family law attorney. Now she gets the child support paid directly to her.”

As a result, the grandmother can now afford to move to a safer neighborhood. “This impacts the quality of life for the child,” Cole noted. “That’s not foreclosure work. But it improved the quality of housing and the quality of the child’s life.”

Another result of outreach: “We found a house where rooms are rented and an entire family was living in one room,” Cole said. “We assisted them when the house went into foreclosure. The landlord didn’t tell them! With our help, they weren’t put out on the street.

“Foreclosure is such a final step for people,” Cole added. “Foreclosure prevention is ultimately what we’re about, using housing counselors and lawyers. We help them before things get too bad.”

Joab noted that this kind of work isn’t new to St. Ambrose, which was founded in 1968 and has helped over 100,000 families over the decades. “It fits in with the St. Ambrose culture — to bring services to the community,” he said.

While St. Ambrose offers its services statewide, much of the focus is helping the community surrounding its mid-town Baltimore office.

“We’re very committed to the area around here, ZIP code 21218,” Cole said. “We want to help our neighbors know we’re here to help. This is a high foreclosure area.”

Other programs offered by St. Ambrose include a home ownership program for first-time homebuyers; a home-sharing program that helps homeowners stay in and maintain their homes; a rental services program that provides decent, affordable housing to low- to moderate-income folks; and case management services to residents.

In the first two months after the revamped legal services program was underway, Cole and her staff advised and counseled over 50 people — and the program has continued to grow. “We have a law student working as a law clerk and another staff attorney starting soon,” Cole said.

So far, Cole and her staff are meeting the foreclosure prevention demand. “When people are in distress, you can’t tell them to come back in two weeks,” she said. “It’s important that they know they spoke with a lawyer. We have open intake, not just certain hours.”

The bottom line is direct services to clients.

“It’s important and part of St. Ambrose’s history,” Joab said. “If you need help, this is where you come.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.