Prairie State Legal Services: Fighting Poverty in North and Central Illinois
Prairie State Legal Services has a rich, long history of facing adversity with resilience. We have endured nearly a half century of change and growth. However, one thing is as true today as it was nearly 45 years ago at our founding—to fight poverty, we must have civil legal aid.
In a 2017 study led by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and NORC at the University of Chicago, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. During that same time period, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem, including problems with domestic violence, veterans’ benefits, disability access, housing conditions, and health care. The rate was even higher for some: households with survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault (97%), with parents/guardians of kids under 18 (80%), and with disabled persons (80%).
According to www.welfareinfo.org, one out of every 7.4 residents of Illinois lives in poverty. That equates to 1,698,613 of 12,551,822 residents reporting income levels below the poverty line in the last year. For many Illinoisans experiencing poverty, facing life-impacting events like eviction, domestic violence, and public benefits, paying for these legal services is often unobtainable. That’s where Prairie State comes in.
Our dedicated staff and volunteers work together to expand access to justice for people experiencing poverty. Our attorneys look to use the law in creative ways and challenge the legal system on a daily basis that has often left our community’s most vulnerable without hope.
Civil legal aid is one of the best defenses against homelessness, so one of our top priorities at Prairie State right now is providing assistance to people who are facing the loss of their homes.
From October 1, 2021, to January 24, 2022, Prairie State closed 2,049 cases involving evictions and related rental housing issues. Of these cases, we completed 427 with representation in negotiations, court, or administrative appeal hearings with 83% obtaining favorable outcomes. Some 356 cases included 415 adults and 397 children in 22 different counties, which includes our rural counties.
Our attorneys and advocates know firsthand how housing, or a lack thereof, impacts every facet of a person’s life—from a child’s education, to access to fresh food, to the necessity of safety and shelter. Research shows that having an attorney when faced with eviction drastically improves the chances of a positive outcome in court.
In a 2018 study from Stout Risius Ross (Stout), an advisory firm that has expertise involving a variety of socio-economic issues, including issues of or related to access to justice and the needs of low-income individuals, only 22% of tenants avoided displacement when attempting to represent themselves. However, in contrast, 95% of tenants avoided displacement when assisted by an attorney in eviction proceedings.
The Restore, Reinvest, and Renew (R3) Project is Prairie State’s community lawyering initiative that combines the knowledge and skills of community advocates and attorneys to help solve community identified legal issues in historically marginalized communities, and does so in a way that empowers local leaders and groups to move toward lasting change and racial equity. Prairie State works closely with community-based organizations, churches, and groups to provide not only legal assistance and education, but provide the skills and knowledge to support lasting change.
In an effort to teach attorneys and court officials about the issues facing people living in poverty who are seeking to represent themselves in court, Prairie State Attorney and R3 Project Coordinator Kira Devin worked with staff to plan, coordinate, and conduct a “Navigating the Courts Alone” simulation with Winnebago County judges and staff.
The simulation placed participants in the role of a low-income mother facing eviction for non-payment of rent and trying to find public benefits, legal assistance, rent assistance, and a path through the court process. The program shed light on the difficulty that unrepresented litigants have getting help while dealing with existing systems, barriers, and inequities. Evaluations from this event showed that judges and courthouse staff found the simulation beneficial and that it improved their knowledge of the systems people are working with.
“We hope that implicit bias and racial inequity components of the event spurred judges and courthouse staff to reflect on their own day-to-day actions to make a more just system,” Devin said. “This event directly relates to residents, who are disproportionately black, indigenous, and people of color, and face implicit and explicit bias in the justice system and are often unrepresented in court since attorneys are not guaranteed in civil cases. By educating courthouse staff and judges on the real life circumstances faced by unrepresented parties and improving the experience of R3 residents, we are improving the trust in the legal system.”
Although we face huge challenges, we are making a tangible impact on our clients’ lives by showing up every day and finding creative solutions to our clients’ issues and, sometimes changing imperfect systems in the process. As the level of poverty increases throughout our service area, we are fighting harder than ever to pursue justice and restore hope for our clients.
For A Closer Look at Poverty Rates by County in Illinois, visit: