The Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, one of the region's principal providers of free legal counseling to the poor, may be forced to close its last office on the Westside next month because of money problems.
The possibility that the office will shut down raises the specter of dozens of low-income clients stranded without legal representation. However, officials in Santa Monica, which foots much of Legal Aid's local bill, and others are pledging to find ways to make up for the potential loss.
Legal Aid's lone Westside office is in a nondescript building on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. Operating 23 hours a week, it handles tenants fighting evictions and other housing-related cases--as many as 15 a week, according to Legal Aid officials.
But because the office is only a part-time operation, it has become costly to run, Legal Aid staffers say. A request for more money from Santa Monica was turned down; Jack Schwartz, managing attorney of the Westside office, says he's not taking on new cases, and he believes the "odds are" that the office will be closed by July 1, though a final decision has not been reached.
"It's sad," said City Councilman David Finkel, who is following the situation. "They do good work."
Finkel and other city officials said, however, that they would try to guarantee that other agencies, especially the newer Santa Monica-based Westside Legal Services, fill the void left if Legal Aid closes shop.
The moment of truth came for Legal Aid in recent weeks as Santa Monica drew up its budget. City staff members recommended that the local Legal Aid office be granted the same amount of money it received last year, plus a 4% cost-of-living increase, for a total of $63,983. Legal Aid had requested $113,852 in an effort to expand to full-time operation.
At the same time, Westside Legal Services was granted a similar cost-of-living increase, bringing its funding to $118,606, plus an additional $49,107 for a new domestic violence counseling program.
City officials said they had hoped Legal Aid's central headquarters would come through with the extra money that the local office seemed to need. But that has not happened.
"We were looking for them to give more funding as a demonstration of their commitment to the Westside," said Julie Rusk, human services coordinator for the city of Santa Monica. "They didn't seem willing to do that."
The Legal Aid Foundation, Rusk added, has many priorities in other parts of the city of Los Angeles. Westside Legal Services handles exclusively residents of the Westside, including Santa Monica, Venice, Culver City, Mar Vista, Palms and West Los Angeles.
Several telephone calls to Katharine Krause, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, were not returned. Others familiar with the issue pointed to steady cutbacks in federal funding for poverty law. Legal Aid, for example, was forced to close three offices, including one in Venice, in 1981 after a third of its budget was slashed by federal sources.
"There's always more we want to do and should be doing," said Barbara Blanco, a Legal Aid administrator who oversees the Westside office. "Obviously, we would like to make (the Westside office) full time. I don't know if this agency has the money to do it."
Blanco said a decision had not been made as to whether the office will be kept open or will close. She added, however, that clients will be referred to Legal Aid's office in downtown Los Angeles or to other agencies, if the Westside operation folds.
"The people will get taken care of," Blanco said. "Whether it remains economically feasible to run (the office) is another question."
Several Santa Monica officials said that, if Legal Aid closes, the money that would have gone to it probably will be transferred to Westside Legal Services to continue work on tenant-landlord cases.
Elena Popp, executive director of Westside Legal Services, said her agency, already straining under its workload, is willing to assume the cases--if it can get additional money to cover the cost.
"The real desperate need in the whole city is around providing services in landlord-tenant cases. There's a real lack of services," Popp said. "It's just amazing what happens to people in the courts when they're not represented. They really get rammed through the system."
If Westside Legal Services emerges as the only provider of attorneys for low-income people in this area, it will come at a time the agency is growing and improving after a somewhat shaky start in 1982, according to several lawyers and officials in Santa Monica.
Westside Legal Services was averaging 150 clients a month late last year and this year expects the caseload to exceed 1,500, Popp said. The staff has grown to three attorneys, four student paralegals and four administrative employees. In addition to housing, it handles cases involving immigration law, government benefits and consumer issues.
Clients are asked to donate $10 but "no one is turned away for lack of money," Popp said.