This organization started when we realized that it was in fact possible to ensure universal access to civil representation for everyone. For years, we had watched existing legal aid nonprofits turn away more people than they helped. We had seen the government grossly underfund legal aid and attach ever-more restrictions on who could be helped. We had witnessed the private sector invest atrociously little of its accumulated wealth into legal aid.
The result of this is predictable: legal aid has become the least resourced social need in the United States. Most low and moderate income Americans can’t get help, and as a result can’t properly enforce their rights.
We realized that by combining program innovations, new strategies for generating earned income, and a focus on fundraising from the general public we could create a system that solved this massive problem and guaranteed access to legal representation for everyone in a community, on every issue.
We decided to prototype this system in Bayview/Hunters Point because it was the only high-need neighborhood of San Francisco without a legal aid office in the neighborhood. In late 2012 we raised about $8,000 in seed funding from some generous private donors and decided to put our theories to the test.
We opened our doors on January 7th, 2013. In our first year our core staff worked tirelessly on minimum wage to deliver services to dozens of clients. The heating in the office didn’t work, the furniture was rotten, and we couldn’t afford a receptionist. We had a scrounge office supplies and equipment from people we knew.
But we proved that our model could work. We never turned away someone for services who lived in the local community, and by rigorously tracking our outcomes we were able to get more and more support from people that hadn’t funded legal aid before. We tripled our budget between our first and second year, and tripled it again in our third year.
We’ve come a long way since the days when we had to hand shred everything because we couldn’t afford a shredder. We’re excited by what the future can bring and look forward to growing our model out to encompass more and more people. Eventually, we want to ensure universal access to civil representation for everyone in San Francisco.