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One-Stop Problem Solving

Delgado Community College, Single Stop USA, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services

By James F. Welch

Mary (a pseudonym) was finally on the right track after a difficult divorce. But as a single mother she faced financial difficulties. To make a better life for her family, she decided to go back to college. She studied hard and earned very good grades. She graduated and applied to nursing school, but she learned that an old minor traffic charge would ultimately prevent her from getting her nursing license. The stable future for which she had worked now seemed out of reach. She confided in a teacher, who referred her to me, the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services attorney at the Single Stop USA program at Delgado Community College. We helped her get her record expunged so that she could get her nursing license. Her dream of a better life for her family is now back on track.

Mary’s good fortune resulted from a unique partnership among three organizations: educational, Delgado Community College; social service, Single Stop USA; and legal, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. These three organizations have been able to change people’s lives in a substantial and low-tech way. The idea is to solve problems without broad or expensive efforts on the part of the cooperating institutions.

The Partners

Delgado Community College was founded and established in 1915 by a New Orleans philanthropist, Isaac Delgado. Today it is the largest postsecondary school in the metropolitan New Orleans area, with about 18,000 students at seven different campus sites. Delgado offers 35 different courses of study for an associate degree; four courses of study for a technical diploma; 37 courses of study for a certificate; and 30 courses of study for technical competency. One of its best programs is the Delgado Community College Charity School of Nursing, considered to be one of the best nursing schools in the United States. Having connections with various employers throughout the metropolitan region, Delgado has a strong employment program. New Orleans has a high poverty rate; a full-service community college such as Delgado can assist individuals in working their way out of poverty and can lower the community’s poverty level.  

Single Stop USA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping community college students remain in school until they reach their academic goals. Operating from New York since 2001, Single Stop now has programs on 18 campuses in Louisiana, California, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Studies have indicated that many people leave community college without a degree or without completing their specific program requirement because of personal problems unrelated to their academic programs; these problems include financial crises and the resulting fallout, poor basic precollege education, poor access to nutritional and health care providers, and lack of family and social support. Many of the students at community colleges have higher rates of criminal records, single parenthood, and low-paying, dead-end jobs. One of the most shocking hurdles that community college students have to overcome is outright hostility by family members and friends for trying to get a college degree. But many of the biggest impasses to successful college completion are legal problems.

A full-service community college such as Delgado can assist individuals in working their way out of poverty and can lower the community’s poverty level.

The Single Stop approach is to connect students with as many resources as possible. Students are shown and given the names and numbers of various outside organizations that can assist them. However, Single Stop is not just a directory or referral agency. The idea is to assist students in becoming self-motivated, self-reliant, well-functioning adults. Single Stop employs a mix of methods: direct delivery of services, referrals to agencies that offer services not handled directly by Single Stop, or a blend of the two. Single Stop’s most-used direct service is the tax program. Official tax preparers are available on campus to prepare students’ taxes. Many students receive a much-needed lump sum of money from their tax returns. The Single Stop program at Delgado has generally been preparing about 1,000 tax returns each year. Another direct service is financial planning assistance, which involves a hands-on look at each person’s financial situation. Single Stop employees guide the students in an online program to determine their eligibility for public benefits.

The students are referred to individual agencies and provider groups, both private and government, to seek whatever help they may need financially, medically, nutritionally, and socially. Once again, the idea is to point the students in the right direction and let them do the rest. Every now and then, some agencies have extra benefits that they give to Single Stop at Delgado. For example, a private corporation had a large number of extra bus tokens that were being phased out by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. Students responded immediately and came by looking for transit tokens long after they were no longer available. One of the latest ventures is a food pantry being started and maintained by Single Stop with the help of VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) work-study students.  

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services is the civil legal services agency for the 22 parishes of Louisiana east of the Atchafalaya River. The service area includes metropolitan New Orleans and Baton Rouge, together with other cities such as Houma, Thibodaux, Hammond, Amite, Bogalusa, Covington, and Slidell. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services offers assistance to eligible clients in the areas of family, consumer, public benefits, and housing law. The organization offers some specialized representation on issues such as mortgage foreclosure prevention, tax levies from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and rental housing habitability.

The Single Stop Law Office

In 2012 the then-directors of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, Mark Moreau (now deceased) and Brian Lenard (now retired), applied to Single Stop for a grant to handle legal matters for the students at Delgado. They received the grant and started to offer legal services to Delgado students. The legal program operates in an office that is next-door to the Single Stop office so that students can have privacy and confidentiality and yet be part of Single Stop. Each new client completes the application form and then consults with me. With a few distinctions, the students are treated as any other legal services client. I have wide discretion about the actions to take to resolve clients’ cases. I may assist clients in drafting pleadings or forms for them to handle the matter themselves, or I may represent them myself, depending on the complexity of the matter. I may refer the matter to units at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services or any other provider of legal services, including specialized private attorneys, some of whom are volunteers with The Pro Bono Project, in New Orleans. Although the days for me to be at Single Stop have fluctuated over time due to changes in funding, I am available at least two days a week.

In some Single Stop programs, college students are referred by Single Stop to the local legal services office. For example, students at the Miami-Dade College Single Stop office have been referred to Legal Services of Greater Miami. The cooperative relationship among these three entities has been beneficial for everyone. Other programs, such as ours in New Orleans, have on-site attorneys; Philadelphia and New York City have this arrangement. The New Orleans program is the first of its kind in the Gulf South.

Single Stop Cases

From the very start of the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services presence at Delgado in April 2012, interest has been high. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services originally was asked to see 20 new student-clients per month, for a total of 240 per year. From the beginning, we have been seeing more than 20 per month. Since April 2012, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services has seen more than 1,200 students at Delgado. Of these, more than 500 were seen for extended legal cases, and the rest were notarizations, usually for students applying to receive licenses in various health care fields, particularly nursing, respiratory, x-ray, and medical laboratory workers.    

Although the legal problems of the students are similar to those of the larger population, certain distinct patterns appear. From the beginning, the most serious legal issue has been the need for expungements, partly because the Louisiana State Nursing Board will not issue a registered nurse license to a person with a criminal record. Most students with criminal records did not have the resources available to them to do more than plead guilty at the first appearance in court; they were unable to hire counsel, could not return to court because of work constraints, or lacked knowledge about the system. The good news is that courts have been very willing to assist these students in any legal way they can. Judges, district attorneys, parish attorneys, and city attorneys generally are impressed with people who are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and have genuinely changed their lives and are on a road to personal success. At least ten of these students discovered that they loved being in school and that they had a natural talent in fields such as medical and computer technology and biology. One young man found out that he could build an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine; another young woman discovered a passion for biology and plans to pursue a career in biological research.  

After expungements, the most common cases involve family law, which likewise accounts for a large number of cases in traditional legal services offices. The factor that differs the most from traditional legal services family law cases is an important one: the clients are in college. Once again, courts tend to be impressed when litigants are trying to improve their lives, and this inclination often favors the college student, who is seen as more responsible than a noncollege student. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services has had several custody cases in which the client won because the client was a college student.

Off-campus student housing is often one of the worst aspects of student life. Since students move often, some landlords do not feel compelled to rent the highest-quality apartments to them. A number of our clients have complained that their apartments are uninhabitable. The problems about which the students complain are usually too serious and expensive to be repaired by the students with repair costs deducted from their rent. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services recently hired an attorney to handle housing habitability cases such as these, and we anticipate good outcomes on this issue.

The advantage of having a legal office on-site is that it gives each person direct assistance on the campus itself, and the students do not have to find an attorney to resolve their legal problems.

Because of its location in New Orleans, Delgado Community College is a great community resource for studies in such varied fields as culinary arts, music, communications, architecture, building construction, and film. The resurgence of interest in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the presence of Hollywood have made New Orleans a good place for future jobs in film, music recording, and other intellectual property fields. Of course, modern music—jazz—began in New Orleans, and the city boasts a great deal of musical talent. The same is true of New Orleanians’ obsession with food. Delgado offers quite a few programs in all of these artistic endeavors. As a result, the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services office has been asked more questions than usual about intellectual property issues. We have seen several patent and copyright cases and have successfully referred them to volunteer attorneys with The Pro Bono Project.

When the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services–Single Stop–Delgado partnership started, Delgado’s administration specifically asked that the legal services attorney be a Louisiana notary public. I am a notary public, as are many attorneys at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. Notaries are important in Louisiana because of our Civil Code system. As in Latin America and much of Europe, notaries have more authority in Louisiana than in other states. For example, an “authentic act” in Louisiana is a self-proving document that requires a notary and two witnesses. Even without this distinction between the other states and Louisiana, a notary would be important simply because so many career and job applications require sworn statements to be executed before a notary.

We saw very quickly that a notary was necessary to the partnership because, within the first three months, several allied health care departments needed a notary for their students to apply for their fields’ state registration system. Now, twice a year, Single Stop provides the notary for the Louisiana State Nursing Board applications. Each semester a date is picked for the notary, the passport photographer, and the jeweler (for the pin) to come to the registration area at the Charity Nursing School. Then, from 12:00 noon until 4:00 p.m., the students get all of these administrative tasks completed without having to find an individual photographer, jeweler, and notary all over town. Since the students usually have families and jobs, as well as crushing school schedules, this saves everybody a great deal of time and trouble. Twice a year Southeast Louisiana Legal Services notarizes over 160 nursing board applications. In addition, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services can use volunteer attorneys from The Pro Bono Project, which is one of the many groups outside legal services offering referral services to legal services clients.

Single Stop is an oasis of tranquility in the middle of the sometimes overwhelming world with which the students have to deal. The advantage of having a legal office on-site is that it gives each person direct assistance on the campus itself, and the students do not have to find an attorney to resolve their legal problems. Encouraging the students to do as much of their legal case as possible gives them knowledge of how the world works. Single Stop works to train students to understand how to solve their problems so that the students can be more effective members of society. Single Stop, Delgado, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services are helping train our community’s future leaders. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services is proud to be involved in such a productive program.  

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