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Pro bono legal aid now available to Women’s Lunch Place guests

Avery Bleichfeld
Pro bono legal aid now available to Women’s Lunch Place guests
Nayab Ajaz, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, poses in front of Women’s Lunch Place. Ajaz has worked as a dedicated attorney at the shelter since February, in a partnership between the two organizations designed to bring more complete legal care to guests at the day shelter. BANNER PHOTO

Guests at the Women’s Lunch Place can now get pro bono legal support through a partnership between the organization and Greater Boston Legal Services.

A dedicated, full-time attorney is available to women at the Back Bay day shelter to help them better traverse a challenging legal system and narrow a so-called “justice gap.”

“Unfortunately, the justice system is very inaccessible and really hard to understand even for someone with a law degree, much less someone who maybe doesn’t speak English too well or hasn’t had much of an education,” said Nayab Ajaz, the new attorney, who started in her role at Women’s Lunch Place in the spring.

Anne Jackowitz, director of strategic initiatives at Women’s Lunch Place, said legal support is critical for the vulnerable community that the shelter serves.

“Without legal support, the success of some of the outcomes will be very, very small as compared to when they’re represented by the attorney, and success of their outcomes is much better,” she said.

The dedicated legal aid, which extends beyond what other clinics are offering, came after the Women’s Lunch Place determined to provide more legal expertise to their clients and Greater Boston Legal Services specified that it wanted more work in the community.

The shelter spares its guests the struggles of having to hire an attorney and provides needed support for the shelter’s advocates.

Legal clinics in homeless shelters already exist, but staff from the Women’s Lunch Place and Greater Boston Legal Services hope their partnership will go a step further, with one attorney helping to keep people from falling through the cracks.

“Because Nayab’s clinic … is every week, women know that they can reach her there,” said Laticia Walker-Simpson, a managing senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services who oversees Ajaz’s work at the shelter. “If they can’t make it to our office, or they can’t make it somewhere else, we know that they’re going to be at Women’s Lunch Place every week. We can meet them where they’re at.”

Ajaz meets the guests at the day shelter weekly and spends the rest of the week working on the cases she’s accumulated.

As the state struggles with a housing crisis, Ajaz focuses mostly on clients’ housing issues, but also tackles other legal issues, including support around terminations and work with benefits programs like MassHealth or Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance.

Walker-Simpson said that a wide range of legal services is part of what makes this program unique.

“It’s really based on community needs,” she said. “It’s flowing and ever-changing.”

Greater Boston Legal Services also runs a clinic with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program focused on SSI and SSDI support and works with City Life/Vida Urbana and Rosie’s Place on housing issues.

Ajaz said having a regular clinic means that she is “a recognized face” for clients.

“I see the same people. They see me,” Ajaz said. “We are building up that kind of legal connection with them where I know the problems they’re having. They can truly talk to me about it and it’s not just, you know, a faceless big law firm that you’re sending emails to, [it’s]someone who’s really there and really listens.”

Walker-Simpson said she hopes the program will be able to expand at the Women’s Lunch Place and be replicated in other shelters, particularly as pro bono legal organizations in the state grapple with overlapping housing and immigration crises with lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greater Boston Legal Services, homelessness, legal aid, Women’s Lunch Place