Larisa Zehr’s (she/her/hers) project with Legal Aid Justice Center will focus on working with immigrant communities across Northern Virginia to fight displacement and achieve housing justice.
Northern Virginia is home to many long-term immigrant communities that are in the midst of displacement. Systemic racial, economic, and citizenship status discrimination make it very difficult for these communities to secure stable, long-term affordable housing, exacerbated by COVID-19. Increasing development pressures, a lack of local and state-level policies that protect affordable housing, and Virginia’s limited tenant protections mean that immigrant families are being pushed out of the region. However, there are many groups of tenants and grassroots organizations pushing back. Legal Aid Justice Center has long-term connections with people organizing for housing justice, especially with undocumented and underdocumented communities. With this project, Larisa Zehr will work alongside community members to fight displacement with multiple tools: individual defense of tenant rights, policy advocacy, strategic litigation, and community education.
Larisa Zehr will work with tenant groups and grassroots organizations to support their advocacy for more just housing policy on a local level, including through policy advocacy, community education, and strategic legal research. She will highlight the impact of affordable housing policy on the particular needs of immigrant communities to key policy stakeholders. She will also defend community members from displacement both in eviction court and because of systemic neglect of repairs and housing quality.
My Equal Justice Works Fellowship allows me to fight alongside Northern Virginia’s immigrant tenants for a housing system that is accountable for its harm to immigrant communities. My experience working with people who have been forcibly displaced makes me proud to contribute to the fight for housing for all.
Our homes are where we imagine and build our futures. I learned about the impact of being forced out of your home from rural farmers in Colombia, where I supported their fight to reclaim and rebuild their communities amid armed conflict. In my work in Northern Virginia, I see immigrants who were forced out of their communities by systemic violence and injustice, and after fighting to gain stability in a new home, face the continual threat of displacement. I am honored to work with them to preserve their communities and future homes.
Ishvaku will work to advance economic justice in Los Angeles by advocating for unhoused individuals who lack identification through an in-person clinic, direct representation, policy advocacy, and impact litigation.
Lack of identification formalizes the socio-economic marginalization of individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness. Identification is a necessary prerequisite for accessing vital services such as social security programs and healthcare benefits, which intend to offer a way out of poverty. However, those born homeless likely never had the chance to get these crucial documents, and those who manage to get identitification may lose them due to housing insecurity. Without identification, people are trapped in a vicious cycle of homelessness.
Ishvaku will establish a biweekly Vital Document Clinic in Skid Row, providing unhoused individuals with assistance in obtaining documents they need to establish identification. When necessary, he will represent clients directly in front of government entities. Ishvaku will also advocate for policies at the local, state, and federal levels that make it easier to obtain identification and affirm the dignity of individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness. Additionally, he will work to craft and execute impact litigation that secures broader system relief. Throughout his Fellowship, Ishvaku will focus on building and strengthening coalitions to empower impacted communities and ensure long-term, sustainable change.
Having grown up in Los Angeles County as the child of immigrants, Ishvaku’s commitment to economic justice stems from his family’s experience with economic insecurity. Through this project, Ishvaku will be able to return to Los Angeles to deepen his passion for advancing economic justice.
Poverty is not just an economic catastrophe, but a moral catastrophe that exists as much in a lack of money as it does a lack of hope.
Ishvaku Vashishtha /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Chris’ (he/him/his) project will focus on reducing homelessness among child welfare and juvenile justice involved youth in western states through coalition building, community education, representation in administrative hearings, systemic advocacy, and litigation.
More than a third of the United States’s homeless population resides in the western region of the United States, including thousands of children and youth. Youth too often experience homelessness after exiting foster care or juvenile detention. Among this population, youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless. In each of these states, federal and state benefits are available to support homeless youth, but they remain underutilized because of barriers to access.
Youth transitioning into adulthood from child welfare and juvenile justice systems need a multifaceted response that combines direct support for individuals, an educational campaign to increase awareness of available state and federal public benefits, and a multistate coalition to improve the quality and availability of legal representation for these youth currently experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.
Chris’s experience growing up Black, queer, and low-income motivates his commitment to ensure similarly situated young people have the supports they are entitled to as they become adults.
During his Fellowship, Chris will collaborate with civil legal aid attorneys to provide representation to youth attempting to access expanded Medicaid, public benefits, and housing. He will engage directly with transition-age child welfare and juvenile justice involved youth, educational institutions, and homelessness service providers to ensure homeless youth are aware of their entitled public benefits. Chris will also create referral networks between homeless youth service providers and local civil legal aid organizations. Additionally, he will establish a multistate coalition composed of youth, service providers, policy experts, and legal aid advocates to improve the legal representation available to youth in the region.
Every young person deserves the support they need to grow into a healthy and happy adult. Consistent access to basic needs makes space for youth to imagine who they want to be. This project honors those who made space for me to dream.
Chris Middleton /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Ellie’s (she/her/hers) project will help meet the fundamental needs of unhoused young people in New York City by providing direct civil legal services to houseless youth and holding Know Your Rights trainings related to family law, education access, housing, and public benefits.
In New York City, there are over 7,000 unhoused young people. These young people often encounter obstacles to affording food and other essentials, receiving an education, and maintaining a baseline level of personal safety and well-being. Despite the broad range of unmet needs that unhoused youth are likely to have, young people who are houseless are chronically underserved by legal providers and may not realize that some of the hardships they face have legal solutions.
Ellie will provide advice and representation to unhoused young people on many civil legal matters. She will seek name change orders and orders of protection to advance the safety of youth who have experienced abuse; represent young people who have been denied public benefits in the fair hearing process; help unhoused youth access education by advocating with secondary schools and post-secondary institutions; and challenge gender-, ability-, or income-based discrimination by houseless shelters and by landlords. Ellie will also work with pro bono lawyers and legal staff to host drop-in advice clinics throughout New York City and to hold Know Your Rights trainings to educate youth and youth service providers about young people’s rights to safety, shelter, education, and social services.
Ellie’s work with houseless youth is driven by her conviction that housing is a fundamental right and her steadfast belief in the power and potential of young people.
All young people deserve safety, compassion, and stability. As rates of youth houselessness continue to rise, it is essential that unhoused young people are given the services, knowledge, and support they need to thrive.
Ellie Rutkey /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Leah’s project with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center will focus on ensuring that federally subsidized housing provides decent living conditions, regardless of the race and income characteristics of the neighborhood it is located within.
Across the country, roughly 3 million low-income individuals rely on apartments subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through Project-Based Section Eight. In white, middle-class neighborhoods, this federal housing program provides high quality, safe rental housing; in Black and Latinx, low-income neighborhoods, it does not. Leah’s project will lay the legal and organizing groundwork to correct a design flaw driving this housing disparity in HUD’s project-based section eight housing program, seeking to enable better housing conditions for an estimated one and a half million Black and Latinx individuals.
While working as a local housing organizer for a decade and a half, Leah saw how federal housing programs fail to provide fair and equal conditions in communities of color and how un-changing those conditions can be, despite the herculean efforts from tenants to achieve better for their communities. There is a federal design flaw driving these disparities afflicting housing communities across the country. Through legal advocacy and organizing, we can build the power to solve this problem.
Leah is building a statistical model using HUD’s own national datasets to prove that HUD’s “market-mimicking” funding model drives racially disparate conditions in project-based section eight housing located in the most impoverished and segregated census tracts across the country, which tend to have housing markets in collapse. With that proof in mind, Leah will engage stakeholders such as tenants, community-based organizations, legal service providers, national housing justice networks, affordable housing developers, and municipal, state, and federal officials. Leah will facilitate discussions and consensus-building among these stakeholder groups about the best advocacy and legal options to achieve a more equitable federal housing system.
My Equal Justice Works Fellowship provides me the opportunity to continue to seek justice with the tenant communities I grew to know and love working as a community organizer for the 15 years before beginning law school.
Leah Levinger /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Throughout this Fellowship, KB (she/her/hers) will focus on unhoused rights and stable housing access via an unhoused jail support hotline, holistic legal aid, and community collaboration.
Nationally, unhoused individuals are 11 times more likely to be arrested than housed individuals. These arrests are disproportionately for nonviolent or procedural offenses such as sleeping on private property or missing court. People who are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and/or disabled are disproportionately targeted by this criminalization. The collateral consequences of these arrests can be monumental, causing impacted individuals to lose their employment, housing voucher, or child custody.
KB has worked alongside the unhoused community in St. Louis for almost seven years, distributing supplies weekly and during emergency weather. She was inspired to apply for a Design-Your-Own Equal Justice Works Fellowship because of her experiences working on a tenant advocacy hotline, opening volunteer-run emergency winter shelters, and supporting unhoused tent communities organizing against displacement.
KB’s project will build on St. Louis’ strong network of housing and abolition activism to provide a rapid response to unhoused arrests via a jail support hotline. She will also work alongside unhoused communities to combat criminalization laws, reduce the collateral consequences of incarceration, and pursue pathways to housing via holistic legal aid and Know Your Rights trainings.
I am passionate about this project because I strongly believe in the St. Louis community. By partnering with community organizations and movement leaders, I hope to support the work already being done by unhoused activists and to continue the fight for housing as a human right.
KB Doman /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Heather (she/her/hers) will advocate for immigrants experiencing homelessness in Miami-Dade County through holistic immigration and public benefits representation.
Medicaid, cash assistance, and housing programs play a critical role in the lives of some of Miami-Dade’s most vulnerable residents: the over 3,700 people experiencing homelessness. For homeless immigrants, the barriers to accessing these vital services are amplified by threshold eligibility challenges and delays in the documentation needed to prove their immigration status. These needs are pressing in Miami-Dade, home to one of the densest immigrant populations in the country, where local shelters report increases in newly arrived immigrants in their care. Despite the need for holistic legal advocacy, immigration and public benefits are currently addressed in silos—a gap that Heather aims to bridge through her Fellowship.
Heather’s prior work in refugee resettlement exposed her to the challenges that immigrants face navigating complex bureaucracies to connect to public benefits and services. In her master’s program, she researched immigrants’ barriers to healthcare and is committed to addressing these challenges as an Equal Justice Works Fellow and throughout her legal career.
Heather will provide onsite legal services and education at partner homeless shelters in Miami-Dade County and will represent clients in immigration and public benefits matters. She will identify patterns of challenges facing immigrant clients as they seek public benefits and will pursue advocacy to address systemic barriers. Throughout her Fellowship, she will build partnerships with diverse stakeholders serving unhoused individuals in Miami-Dade, supporting efforts to address the unique legal needs of immigrants within the county’s homelessness response.
In my work with immigrant clients, I have repeatedly seen immigration status open or close doors to healthcare, rental assistance, and other services that are especially vital for individuals experiencing homelessness. To respond effectively to homelessness, then, we must account for the unique legal needs of immigrants.
Heather Odell /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Jake will partner with his host organization, CASA, inc. to proudly represent immigrant communities facing housing instability throughout Maryland, ensuring they have access to safe housing and justice.
Housing instability in Maryland has reached a crescendo. Eviction rates and rents have risen hand-in-hand while housing conditions often have not, burdening low-income families already struggling to keep a safe roof over their heads. Housing instability specifically has a disproportionate impact on members of Maryland’s low-income immigrant community, who have unequal access to remedies under Maryland’s legal system due to language and cost barriers.
Jake will provide direct and full legal services to tenants facing eviction, inhumane and unsafe property conditions, wrongful detainer suits, and other legal issues related to housing security. From initial interviews to trial, Jake will help tenants see a fair day in court. Additionally, Jake will host Know Your Rights training presentations. Knowledge is power, and this is especially true within our legal system. Jake will also aid community organizing efforts, campaign for improved laws, and draft legislation on behalf of Maryland’s immigrant communities.
In college, Jake dreamed of becoming an immigration attorney. However, after struggling with unsafe housing conditions while working towards his law degree, and after hearing hundreds of similar stories from almost everyone he knew, Jake switched gears. He believes that all people deserve access to stable housing and hopes to create a pathway for tenants to learn their rights and seek justice.
I am proud to advocate for the rights of immigrant communities and tenants as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. In doing so, I play an active part in creating a more just and equitable society.
Jake Kmiech /
2022 Housing Justice Program Fellow
DiNesha’s (she/they) project, hosted by the Homeless Persons Representation Project’s Homeless Youth Initiative, will focus on eviction defense and increasing access to permanent housing for youth and young adults in Baltimore City, Maryland.
This Fellowship seeks to address housing issues facing youth up to the age of 25. Many times, housing resources are not geared toward this age demographic leaving them unhoused or subject to cyclical transitional housing. By providing legal and educational assistance specifically for this population, DiNesha will seek to increase the number of youth and young adults’ access to permanent housing.
Increasing access to permanent housing for youth and young adults will require advocacy, collaborative partnerships with the community providers and those affected by housing instability, as well as homelessness and legislative policy change. Eviction and subsidized housing defense are essential to ensure that those currently housed remain housed and those denied get the housing they need. Additionally, connecting with Continuum of Care organizations providing resources to those who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability is paramount to connecting with the community this fellowship seeks to serve. Through those partnerships, DiNesha will develop and execute legal clinics to not only educate youth about their rights as tenants but also support the education of staff so that the work may continue after the completion of the Fellowship. Lastly, DiNesha will advocate for legislative policy changes affecting homeless youth by persistently uplifting youths’ voices and strategic coalition building to continue developing lasting infrastructure that effectively supports Baltimore’s youth and young adults.
This opportunity was uniquely catered to a demographic that DiNesha has always sought to serve: youth and young adults. Youth are our future and investing in their well-being is one of the best investments an individual and a community can make. Although DiNesha struggled with housing instability and homeless throughout their youth and young adulthood, the trajectory of their lives was not determined by those periods. It was because of those that made an investment in them and the same can be said about the community they now seek to serve.
As a person from a low-income background who has struggled with youth housing instability and homelessness, I’m honored and proud to serve a community from which I proudly identify and be an example of the possibilities the future may offer.
DiNesha Rucker /
2022 Housing Justice Program Fellow
Denise (she/her) will coordinate education and advocacy efforts of tenant groups throughout the state, especially in policy advocacy.
There are pockets of tenant groups throughout the state using various materials for education and advocacy. These groups are doing policy advocacy, but not necessarily collectively, which minimizes their impact.
The inspiration for doing this work arises out of the Denise’s desire to be a part of systemic change and not short-term solutions.
Denise will identify and support grass roots tenant organizations and groups throughout the state to help coordinate and guide them on policy advocacy. She will accomplish this by providing education and training both in person and virtually.
She will provide pathways for tenants to lead policy initiatives and determine priorities through advocacy training and meetings in conjunction with tenant organizations.
Through education and training, she will empower public housing residents to support their inclusion in decision making processes.