Community Legal Services has a lot to celebrate

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Dustie DeVille began her address to the 35 or so people gathered to celebrate Community Legal Services’ two years of existence, “We didn’t know when we kicked off two years ago at the State Bar Pro Bono Fair at Cooley Law School that we’d start getting phone calls right away — 10-15 calls a day.

“We had to hit the pavement running. We knew there was a lot of need, but didn’t realize how much,” she continues in her soft and sincere voice.

Community Legal Services (CLS) exists to fill in the gaps left by traditional agencies providing attorney services for the indigent. These agencies, for example, Legal Aid of Western Michigan, may  face diminished funding or severe constraints based on the source of funding or other factors, so CLS set out to remedy that -- in particular to work in the criminal area.

DeVille is the volunteer Executive Director of CLS, and was the founder, ably assisted by Jan Otto (see below).

The non-profit faced the usual hardships of a start-up organization, complicated by having to get a handle on what clients they would serve in order to know how many volunteer attorneys they needed, and then recruiting those attorneys. Many stepped up to the plate.

With the support of WMU Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the group was able to meet much of the demand they encountered. But it was not until a couple of partners requested their participation in innovative programs that CLS came into its own.

“We were honored to be asked to help in these programs, and we’re now serving more people than we would’ve thought possible,” DeVille told those who stayed for the brief program during the Sept. 18 celebration.

After profusely thanking Cooley staff and students (none of whom could attend) and the volunteer attorneys listed at the end of this article, DeVille introduced Judge William G. Kelly of the 62-B District Court in Kentwood to talk about the first of these projects, the Eviction Diversion Pilot Program.

Renters facing eviction in Kentwood due to inability to make payments may apply for assistance so they may stay in their homes or apartments. Judge Kelly and the court — following a model set up in Kalamazoo — can decide to put families facing financial challenges in the diversion program.

The Kent County Eviction Diversion Pilot began in March 2013, and provides advocacy and potential resources to those who have been served with a notice to appear in court, who have income to pay the next month’s rent and are eligible for Department of Human Services (DHS) assistance.

Those tenants meet right at the court with representatives from the Salvation Army Housing Assessment Program and DHS, and come up with a court-sanctioned plan to meet their obligations. CLS attorneys, supported by Cooley students, provide legal guidance to those accepted into the program.

Judge Kelly, who has been a judge in Kentwood since 1979 and is running unopposed for his final six-year term, said, “This is a win for the landlord, because they know the dollars will be coming in; a win for the renter, because they’ll have a place to live; and a win for the community, which does not end up with homelessness and housing instability.”

In fact, he said, in survey work involving a limited sample of 16 people from the many who have been helped, five said they did not know what they would have done if evicted, and two said they would definitely have to live on the street.

“CLS has served people in our community and volunteer attorneys working with them have donated $113,000 in billable hours,” he added.

Following Judge Kelly, Heather Pelletier, a CLS?board member who works for 61st District Court Judge Donald Passenger, talked about the new Community Outreach Court, in which CLS plays a large role.

The program exists to help the homeless or precariously housed people in Grand Rapids resolve court issues, and was Pelletier’s inspiration. Judge Passenger holds court at Mel Trotter Ministries once a month.

DeVille said as she wrapped up, “We’re so happy to participate in both these programs, but we hope to represent even more people in poverty over the next years. Michigan is actually facing a huge deficit; there is one pro bono attorney for every 21,000 people living in poverty.”

DeVille also said they see a lot of need in Muskegon County, and hope to be able to expand what they can offer here.

CLS continues to take a variety of cases outside these projects, so they?need money and attorney volunteers. To supply either or both, please visit http://clswm.org.

She closed by quoting Mother Theresa:? ““I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

The following attorneys have volunteered with CLS: Jeffrey Arnson, Law Office of Jeffrey P. Arnson ; Jason Robert Baker, Law Office of Jason R. Baker; Cindy Cotton Brady, Cindy Cotton Brady PLLC (Muskegon); Andrea Lynn Domorsky, Laura Monahan Joyce and Regina Ann Wright, Domorsky and Wright; Michelle Lynn Elowski, The Law Office of Michelle L. Elowski; Brent Thomas Geers, Geers Law; Elizabeth A. Giddings, Macatawa Mediation and Black River Family Law; Cynthia Jill Goodell, Goodell Legal Services ; Tom Hoffman, Wrigley and Hoffman PC; Keith A. Koonmen, Law Office of Keith A. Koonmen; Peter Michael Kulas, Kulas Law Office; Bonnie S. Lent-Davis, Davis Legal Advocates; Michelle Marie Lupanoff (a CLS board member), Lupanoff and Kramer Law; Audra Rose McClure, Rodenhouse Kuipers; Michelle Marie McLean, Bolhouse Baar and Lefere; Joni Michaud and Kristy Lee Sytsma, Voices for Hope (DeVille’s home law firm); Stephanie Lynn Newton,
Newton Law Offices; Katie Oland, Law Office of Katie Oland; Jan M. Otto (board member who has been with CLS?from the beginning), Jan M. Otto PLLC; Anna Rebekah Rapa (also a board member), The Law Office of Anna R. Rapa; Elizabeth Reyes-Rosario, Grand Rapids Law Group; Kamau Sandiford, Martin L. Tanoto Tan, Lorna Teng and Jake Tighe, Community Legal Services of West Michigan; AnnMarie S. Smith, Law Office of Smith and Smith; Joshua J. Tanis, Tanis Schultz; Mark Tomasik, Associate General Counsel at DP?Fox Ventures; Mike Toburen, Toburen Law; Jason Ross VanElderen, VanElderen Legal; Andrew James VanRyn, Stuart Law; Renee Lynn Wagenaar, WN Law; Anna C. White, Hann Persinger; and Clayton E. Wittman (formerly of Whitehall), Wittman Legal Services.

Cooley Law School Dean Nelson P. Miller acts as advisor to CLS.