My Impact: A Conversation with 2020 Fellow Robert Flores

My Impact is a conversation series from Equal Justice Works, using interviews with alumni to shine a light on what’s possible with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Marketing and Communications Assistant Miranda Sullivan spoke with Robert Flores, a 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps and a 2020 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. As a Fellow, Robert was hosted by YMCA International Services.

For Robert Flores, working in public interest law is a commitment to the entire public interest community. His focus on immigrant communities affected by disasters is a testament to his philosophy. “There’s one fundamental truth to disasters,” said Robert. “[They] can make an already bad situation worse. So, for people who are already disadvantaged or are already struggling in one way, being affected by a disaster just exponentially makes things unbearable.”

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas in 2017, Robert was practicing immigration law at YMCA International Services. The office closed for a week due to flooding and when he returned, he noticed how members of the community were impacted by the hurricane. “It led to them not being able to afford the fee for the immigration office… so I began to do more and more fee waivers for our clients due to applying for temporary needs-based benefits or due to effects on their income or other financial hardships.”

Robert had the unique experience of serving in two Equal Justice Works Fellowship programs. From 2018 to 2020, he participated in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, a program that placed lawyers throughout Texas and Florida to deliver critical legal services to underserved communities affected by recent hurricanes and tropical storms. Following this Fellowship, Robert joined the Disaster Resilience Program from 2020 to 2021, where he helped to fulfill the need for equitable legal services before, during, and after a disaster occurs.

Throughout these two Fellowships, Robert remained at his host organization, YMCA International Services, continuing to expand disaster resiliency within the immigrant and refugee communities and build stronger client relationships.  “It has made me more cognizant of people’s situation outside of the service that I am providing them,” he noted. “I had the opportunity to go to the immigration courts and actually speak to people in removal proceedings on a rotating basis… and [this allowed me to be] able to see trends, identify gaps, and identify things that were working and things that were not working… My immigration knowledge experience increased exponentially.”

Serving in these programs also allowed Robert to gain experience in other areas of law. “I was able to see civil law in a way that I hadn’t been able to see before [and] I was able to see how disaster effectiveness affects other legal processes,” he said. “I was able to understand the importance of title clearance, of FEMA appeals, and of insurance. I was able to see how people with disabilities are affected or systemically cut off from services and I would not have had that exposure without the Fellowship.”

I was able to see civil law in a way that I hadn't been able to see before [and] I was able to see how disaster effectiveness affects other legal processes.

Robert Flores /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

In his conversation with Miranda, Robert also shared the following advice for those looking to go into public interest law: “Start off with looking at what causes an emotional reaction from you right now. Whether that is good or bad, look at something that is exciting to you… and see if there is any way that you can get involved.”

“Public interest is an incredibly wide net. It can be anything from immigration to education rights, rights for people with disabilities, accessibility, reproductive rights. It’s a field that almost has no limits,” he added.

To learn more about Robert’s work helping immigrants and refugees prepare and recover from disasters, watch the full interview here.

Interested in kickstarting your own public interest law career? Visit here to apply for a 2023 Design-Your-Own Fellowship before the September 13, 2022 deadline!

Maya Wiemokly, a rising 2L at Wake Forest University School of Law and a 2021 Student Fellow in our Disaster Resilience Program, shares her summer of service experience, and discusses how her Equal Justice Works Fellowship helped to build her legal skills outside the classroom.

I began my Equal Justice Works Student Fellowship at Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) passionate about advocating for marginalized groups. My social work degree led me into law school with a desire to build resilience in marginalized groups and deconstruct the systems that oppress them. The crossover between disaster and disability law seemed like the perfect place to start. I had no idea that it would be so formative in determining my future career! This summer has confirmed my desire to work in the public interest sector and bolstered my knowledge about certain underserved communities.

My experience at DRTx felt like the perfect melding of social work and the legal profession that I have been searching for. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with my supervisor, Fellow Stephanie Duke in the Disaster Resilience Program. She allowed me to take on tasks that seemed daunting at the time, but each new experience gave me the confidence to jump headfirst into the next assignment. By the end of my Student Fellowship, I was able to help draft a comment to the Federal Register, a legal guidebook chapter on accessibility in disasters, two ABA resolutions, a policy update from the recent Texas legislative session, and a writ mandamus—just to name a few. Stephanie also allowed me to shadow her in almost any meeting. These included Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Task Force on Disaster Issues Affecting Persons who are Elderly and Persons with Disabilities, ABA Disaster Legal Services, and FEMA Office of Disability Integration and Coordination Stakeholder meetings. I have also been able to work on six client cases. In some cases this was as simple as making a couple phone calls for updates; for others I was able to do research on property restrictions at their residence, talk about vaccine hesitancy, or create a list of local resources based on client needs.

My Equal Justice Works Student Fellowship in the Disaster Resilience Program brought me awareness of the systemic issues that exist in disaster response, and specifically how that impacts the community of people with disabilities. No matter what specific area of law I practice within public interest, my knowledge of ADA regulations, the Stafford Act, FEMA assistance, and community partnerships will make me a stronger advocate in any role. This Student Fellowship truly has been the experience of a lifetime and I will forever be grateful for all that I have been able to learn and experience.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have an equitable recovery and are resilient for the future. For more information about law student component of the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is currently funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

My Equal Justice Works Student Fellowship in the Disaster Resilience Program brought me awareness of the systemic issues that exist in disaster response, and specifically how that impacts the community of people with disabilities.

Maya Wiemokly /
Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellow

In March 2021, Equal Justice Works teamed up with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, American Red Cross, Pro Bono Net and the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center to launch the first-ever Disaster Resilience Awareness Month.

Each year millions of Americans experience at least one major disaster—windstorm, flood, hurricane, wildfire—and need the assistance of a lawyer to help navigate all the challenges that arise after a disaster. This past year, the pandemic has taught us all the added importance of preparedness and resiliency and the critical role that lawyers play in ensuring an equitable recovery for our most vulnerable populations after a disaster.

With Disaster Preparedness Month taking place in September amid hurricane and wildfire seasons, Equal Justice Works recognized an opportunity to increase visibility about disaster preparedness and resilience and bring it to the forefront of people’s minds much earlier in the year.

Throughout the month of March 2021, Equal Justice Works along with other leaders in the field highlighted the important role of lawyers in helping communities prepare for and recover from disasters and shared helpful resources for disaster survivors and lawyers.

As part of Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, Fellows in the Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program hosted a series of virtual trainings in partnership with various organizations, government agencies and legal services providers, to educate communities on their legal rights before, during and after a disaster and to empower attorneys to take action in their communities. These trainings covered a range of legal issues:

Immigration

  • Fellow Robert Flores at YMCA International spoke with South Texas Office for Refugees about disaster preparedness and recovery issues and barriers facing refugees and new arrivals. Read the recap here.
  • Fellow Maria Vazquez at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, along with Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative and BakerRipley, shared information on how to assist immigrant individuals in the disaster preparedness and recovery process. Read the recap

Housing

  • Fellow Stephanie Duke of Disability Rights Texas spoke with the National Low Income Housing Coalition about housing assistance options following a disaster. Read the recap here.
  • Fellow Meghan Smolensky at Lone Star Legal Aid teamed up with AARP to share information on title clearing and how to legally protect your property and assets before a disaster hits. Read the recap here.

Consumer

  • Fellow Stephanie Duke teamed up with Consumer Action to share consumer resources and tips such as addressing ID theft, how to protect yourself as a disaster survivor, and potential protections as a beneficiary of an insurance policy. Read the recap here.

FEMA/SBA

  • Fellow alum Brittanny Perrigue Gomez at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Fellow Brianna M. Williams at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida discuss how Small Business Administration (SBA) Loans can help people after a disaster strikes. Read the recap here.
  • Fellow Hannah Dyal of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid spoke with FEMA to discuss FEMA benefits available to those impacted by disasters. Read the recap here.
  • Fellow alum Brittanny Perrigue Gomez and Linda Anderson Stanley, senior manager of Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program, partnered with Pro Bono Net, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program, and disaster legal aid attorneys from across the country to convene a roundtable on best practices and strategies used in responding to weather-related emergencies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the recap here.

Accessibility

  • Fellow Stephanie Duke spoke with the American Red Cross about its inclusive practices and discussed functional and access needs for individuals and families and how the Red Cross can accommodate those needs. Read the recap here.

“I appreciate all the Equal Justice Works Fellows devoting themselves to serving the needs of individuals and communities seeking support in response to a disaster,” said Timothy E. Sander, executive vice president, chief administrative officer & general manager, Legal Compliance and Human Resources at Sumitomo Corporations of Americas, and Equal Justice Works 2020 Annual Dinner Steering Committee member.

I appreciate all the Equal Justice Works Fellows devoting themselves to serving the needs of individuals and communities seeking support in response to a disaster.

Timothy E. Sander /
Sumitomo Corporations of Americas

As a result of the success of these trainings, AARP will continue to partner with Fellow Meghan Smolensky and Equal Justice Works to release monthly webinars aimed at helping disaster survivors understand their legal rights and the resources available to them. These webinars will take place the first Friday of every month and can be accessed on Lone Star Legal Aid’s Facebook page.

Thanks to the generous support of all our partners, host organizations, and supporters who joined us in making the first-ever Disaster Resilience Awareness Month a success! Equal Justice Works plans to host this awareness month every March and will continue to find opportunities to shine a light on the complex legal needs of disaster survivors and the important role that lawyers have in ensuring that all disaster survivors have access to the resources and support they need to recover and be resilient for the future.

To access a playlist of all trainings from the Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Fellows, visit here. If you’d like more information about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here.

By Hana Hausnerova, director at Equal Justice Works

Across the country, millions of low-income Americans struggle with civil legal problems like accessing safe and stable housing conditions, healthcare, disability benefits, and veterans’ benefits; or seeking protection from domestic violence or economic exploitation. Even more unfortunate: 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help whatsoever due to a lack of resources to serve them.

To help bridge this justice gap, Equal Justice Works designed issue-specific Fellowship programs that bring together a team of lawyers and non-lawyers like community advocates and law students at the local, state, or national level to respond to a legal issue at scale and in a coordinated manner. Through this Fellowship program model, Fellows have the opportunity to work collaboratively and share resources with one another, enabling them to be more effective advocates. Since the inception of this program model, thousands of Fellows, Community Organizers, and Student Fellows have collaborated to make meaningful and measurable collective impact by addressing a range of critical legal aid issues, including eviction and foreclosure prevention, expungement, disaster preparedness and relief, immigration, elder abuse, human trafficking, indigent defense, and veterans’ assistance.

Photo of Daryl F. Hayott

“Being part of a Fellowship Program is essential to tackling high pressure, high value civil legal problems, like the eviction crisis in Virginia,” said Daryl F. Hayott, a 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Housing Justice Program. “As part of the Fellowship program, we can split up responsibilities while working in a coordinated fashion and making best use of each Fellows’ skill set while also being able to cover more area and help more clients.”

Being part of a Fellowship Program is essential to tackling high pressure, high value civil legal problems, like the eviction crisis in Virginia.

Daryl F. Hayott /
2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Housing Justice Program

As the nation’s largest provider of post-graduate public interest Fellowship opportunities, Equal Justice Works has a long, successful track record running Fellowship programs—since 1993, we have implemented more than 25 federally and privately-funded Fellowship Programs, with a total value of over $50 million. In the last five years alone, Equal Justice Works has administered 12 federally and privately-funded Fellowship Programs.

Through the Fellowship program model, Fellows focus on a specific issue area, helping to break down barriers to justice for individuals and families by:

  • Providing direct legal services
  • Creating referral networks
  • Conducting outreach and education events for low-income individuals and training other attorneys and allied professionals
  • Cultivating civic and political will
  • Increasing service capacity of host legal services organizations through developing community partnerships and best practice tools and resources
  • Strengthening collaboration among host legal services organizations

Equal Justice Works supports Fellows by providing customized training and technical assistance to build legal skills, encourage collaboration, and leverage a community of practice to achieve collective impact. Beyond providing direct legal services to target communities, our Fellowship program model makes it possible to build capacity for the legal aid community by seeding the field with trained attorneys who will develop and bring best practices and tools for more effective service delivery to their organizations and community partnerships, even after their Fellowship ends.

For example, through our Department of Justice-funded program, the Crime Victims Justice Corps, between 2018 to 2020, 62 Fellows and 44 law students assisted more than 4,000 crime victims, including 2,336 human trafficking survivors. Following the two-year Fellowship, 65% of the Fellows were hired by their host organizations and continue to leverage their network and connections developed during the program.

Photo of Stephanie Martinez
Photo of Stephanie Martinez

“The Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program gave me an opportunity to focus my immigration law practice on working with survivors of trafficking,” said Stephanie Martinez, a 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Crime Victims Justice Corps. “I was able to gain crucial training and experience to best represent my clients, and after my Fellowship, I was able to secure a grant to continue to work with immigrant survivors of trafficking. I am now a supervising attorney at my organization and continue to focus on anti-trafficking.”

The Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program gave me an opportunity to focus my immigration law practice on working with survivors of trafficking.

Stephanie Martinez /
2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Crime Victims Justice Corps

Equal Justice Works also runs privately-funded programs on disaster recovery and preparedness. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, we established the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, mobilizing 23 attorneys to provide free civil legal services to low-income and marginalized communities affected by these disasters in Texas and Florida. From 2018 to 2020, Fellows in the program provided legal information and services to more than 30,000 individuals and secured nearly $3 million in economic benefits for clients, through fines and fee waivers, FEMA assistance, and housing related matters such as title disputes and rent. Additionally, 90% of the Fellows’ supervisors reported that their legal services organization had increased capacity to serve disaster survivors in their community as a result of the program.

Photo of Brittany Perrigue Gomez
Photo of Brittany Perrigue Gomez

“The Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has provided Fellows who represent those impacted by disasters the ability to expand disaster legal knowledge and give new breadth to being a disaster focused attorney as a career path,” said Brittanny Perrigue Gomez, 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid disaster benefits team manager.

“Being part of an Equal Justice Works Corps has allowed me to find others who are as passionate about the disaster legal issues that impact families across Texas and provide me support and friendships that will last far beyond my Fellowship. As a corps we are far more effective than working alone.” Brittanny Perrigue Gomez, 2017 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps.

Being part of an Equal Justice Works Corps has allowed me to find others who are as passionate about the disaster legal issues that impact families across Texas.

Brittanny Perrigue Gomez /
2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Disaster Recovery Legal Corps

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Fellows in our programs already had an established virtual network and continued collaborating virtually, through listservs and pre-scheduled monthly Fellow meetings. This collaboration allowed Fellows to quickly identify best practices and refine service and outreach delivery to meet the new needs of their communities in a hybrid virtual and in-person way. Fellows also had a preexisting support network of their peers and Equal Justice Works staff and alumni. Our Fellowship Programs create lifelong networks for our Fellows and develops passionate, well-trained, and connected public service leaders ready to make change happen.

Equal Justice Works set me up for success as a public interest attorney.

Dianna Torres /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
New Mexico Immigration Corps

Diana Torres Headshot
Photo of Diana Torres

“Equal Justice Works set me up for success as a public interest attorney,” said 2020 Fellow Diana Torres in the New Mexico Immigration Corps. “[Equal Justice Works gave me] the opportunity to pursue my interest in immigration law and provided me many opportunities for professional development by organizing yearly conferences where I could learn from my peers and from seasoned public interest attorneys who gave me a glimpse into what my career could look like long term.”

We continue to explore ways to expand our Fellowships programs, and are seeking partners to help us do so. If you’d like to learn more about partnering with Equal Justice Works, please reach out to us at [email protected]

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has several individual assistance programs designed to support disaster survivors. As part of the Disaster Resilience Awareness Month training series, Equal Justice Works Fellow Hannah Dyal (she/her/hers) of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and FEMA Emergency Management Specialist Teresa Lien hosted a disaster training centered on applying for FEMA benefits.

Hannah and Teresa discussed the benefits of being prepared for disasters, the connection between preparedness and resiliency, how to apply for FEMA benefits, and the most common types of FEMA assistance available after disasters. Hannah provided a brief overview of common reasons individuals are denied FEMA benefits and shared tips on appealing those denials. While the presentation was not focused on COVID-19, Hannah and Teresa did discuss some of the adjustments that have been made to the FEMA application process due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, and how to best handle those changes.

FEMA can be one of the best ways to get quick assistance for damaged property. If a disaster survivor is prepared with the documents that FEMA will need, the FEMA application may be a simple, straightforward process. However, if a survivor is missing a necessary document or misunderstands a critical question in the application or inspection process, that person may struggle to get the right proof together and likely will be denied FEMA assistance. During this Q&A session, Hannah and Teresa discussed what documents are critical to have at the ready to complete the application.

The stress of living through a disaster or undergoing an evacuation can make it difficult for survivors to complete even basic tasks. If the survivor has lost their home and belongings, or even if they are just living in a damaged home, those tasks may become even more challenging. In addition to the stress from the traumatic event and the damage to their home, disaster survivors often must work with several different agencies and groups following a disaster to get all their needs meet. The process is confusing and difficult at the best of times. Understanding the structure of disaster recovery prior to going through that process can make the recovery less stressful and more successful overall. Here are some helpful resources that Hannah and Teresa shared for individuals looking to apply for FEMA benefits in the aftermath of a disaster:

For additional questions about this presentation, please contact [email protected] or call the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Hotline at 1-888-988-9996.

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

For the final session of the 2021 Disaster Resilience Awareness Month trainings, Meghan Smolensky (she/her/hers), an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Relief Unit at Lone Star Legal Aid, joined Rosalinda Martinez, associate state director of outreach and advocacy for AARP in Houston, Texas, for a discussion about disaster-related legal challenges as they relate to homeowners qualifying for different federal assistance and home repair programs. The session, titled “Being Prepared for the Unexpected,” is part of the Disaster Resilience Awareness Month training series. Juan Santamaria, a Lone Star Legal Aid attorney, translated the presentation for Spanish-speaking viewers.

Disasters are increasingly getting more widespread and are having a larger effect on communities. Meghan is no stranger to the impact of disasters, having helped clients recover after Hurricane Harvey. The Disaster Relief Unit at Lone Star Legal Aid continually deals with disasters, the most recent being Winter Storm Uri. Each new disaster brings hardships for a successful recovery, yet the legal issues that many clients face do not change. Through Meghan’s experience, she has learned that legal property issues are at the forefront of disaster recovery.

During this training, Meghan and Rosalinda discussed how homeowners can prepare before a disaster and shared steps they should take to recover after a disaster strikes. Many people do not realize how intertwined disaster benefits and homeownership are—when a person’s property is damaged during a disaster, sometimes the only barrier between them qualifying for repair programs or federal assistance is a lack of homeownership documents. Rosalinda and Meghan talked about what legal documents you need to prove ownership of your home and if you don’t have access to these documents, what you can do to get some type of legal documentation to show that you have an ownership interest. They shared how people can draft simple documents that will have a huge impact in protecting their property and allow their property to be kept in their family.

Here are some resources Rosalinda and Meghan shared for homeowners looking to apply for federal assistance and home repair programs following a disaster:

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

In the fifth installment of the Disaster Resilience Awareness Month series, Equal Justice Works Fellow Stephanie Duke (she/her/hers) at Disability Rights Texas joined the American Red Cross staff members Karen Koski-Miller, program manager of disaster mental health services; Mary Lockyer, program manager of disaster health services; and Shari Myers, disability integration coordinator; on a session about functional and access needs for individuals and families and how the American Red Cross can accommodate. The training, titled, “Disaster Services and Accessibility within the American Red Cross,” was prerecorded and shared on Disability Rights Texas’s Facebook page on March 15.

At the session, Stephanie and the American Red Cross staff members discussed the disaster services provided by the American Red Cross, as well as the organization’s inclusive practices to ensure all individuals impacted by a disaster receive the assistance they need. This includes providing disaster relief services all day, every day, wherever needed, so people can have clean water, safe shelter, and hot meals. Panelists addressed how these services are typically provided and how they are provided amidst concurrent disasters, like a pandemic. For example, when working with individuals with disabilities, the American Red Cross makes sure that individuals have accommodations and supports in place to ensure the continuity of their autonomy and independence, as well as how a continuum of care can be provided in the most difficult of situations.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding services offered by the American Red Cross, knowing how to access theses services, and creating comprehensive disaster recovery plans for you and your family in blue-sky times to be prepared when the next disaster strikes. For more information on the disaster relief and recovery services available from the American Red Cross, visit here.

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

Adequately preparing for a disaster drastically improves an individual’s ability to recover after a disaster. In the third installment of the Disaster Resilience Awareness Month training series, Equal Justice Works Fellow alum and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid disaster benefits team manager, Brittanny Perrigue Gomez (she/her/hers), and Equal Justice Works Fellow Brianna Williams (she/her/hers), discussed Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and how they are connected to the disaster recovery process. The training titled, “A Disaster Survivor’s Guide to SBA Loans,” was hosted by Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida on March 9.

We know what you’re thinking: “Why should I spend a portion of my afternoon learning about SBA loans? I don’t own a small business. How is this even related to disasters?” These questions are common misconceptions that were explored during the session. Over the course of the discussion, attendees learned how SBA loans can support both individual disaster survivors and small businesses, how to apply for SBA loans, the cross-functionality with FEMA, and how to know if you should appeal an adverse loan decision. The Fellows covered the systemic barriers that unfairly prevent applicants from obtaining a post-disaster loan, with the goal of attendees walking away from the presentation feeling informed, prepared, and confident in seeking forms of relief to protect their family and community in the event of a disaster.

As the frequency and severity of disasters continues to rise, it is important for residents, community leaders, and support providers to be aware of every potential disaster recovery resource. For more information about SBA loans, visit here.

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

In the fourth installment of the Disaster Resilience Awareness Month training series, Equal Justice Works Fellow Stephanie Duke (she/her/hers) at Disability Rights Texas teamed up with Linda Williams, community outreach and training manager at Consumer Action, to address ID theft, how to protect yourself as a disaster survivor, potential protections as a beneficiary of an insurance policy, and shared consumer resources. The training titled, “After a Disaster: ID Theft, Scams, and Insurance,” was prerecorded and shared on Disability Rights Texas’ Facebook page on March 10.

At the session, Stephanie and Linda discussed how in the aftermath of a disaster, individuals are at a higher risk of being taken advantage of by con artists and scammers and how important it is to know what scammers are looking for, how they can steal it, and how to safeguard yourself not only today but in the future. Identity theft hinges on someone having access to your personal identifying information (PII)—your name, social security number, credit card account number, birth date, and even medical information. The session emphasized broad topics to consider like how to build your awareness and protect yourself from identity theft. Consumer Action created this helpful resource that provides information on best practices for protecting yourself from scammers.

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

Photo of Stephanie Duke (left) and Rachel Zummo (right)

In November 2020, Equal Justice Works Fellow alum Rachel Zummo and Fellow Stephanie Duke testified before the Texas Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights about discriminatory civil rights policies and practices evidenced in the response and recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey.

Through a series of online public panels held late last year, the Texas Advisory Committee collected data, documents, and testimonial evidence from experts; as well as examined responses by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and state and local actors. The information gathered at these panels is being used to provide recommendations to the Texas Advisory Committee for an advisory memorandum that it is putting together for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to use in a statutory enforcement report that will be published in May of 2021.

At the hearing, Rachel took the opportunity to call attention to the complexity of navigating FEMA’s procedures, the agency’s lack of transparency, and the role that wealth inequality plays in FEMA’s response to disaster survivors. Rachel emphasized the need to fund more disaster legal aid lawyers who can help low-income communities access legal services, navigate FEMA’s complex paperwork and processes, and appeal FEMA’s decisions when needed.

Rachel also spoke about the barriers low-income disaster survivors face as renters or when homeowners fail to have a clear title to a residence, and the generalized stereotypes which influence FEMA’s damage inspections. Damage inspections, which presume deferred maintenance issues are the cause of unsafe conditions rather than assessing the disaster-related damage, unlawfully denies a low-income applicant the opportunity for disaster assistance. She also highlighted the failure and lack of accountability of a federal-state partnership under FEMA’s Public Assistance program, which is intended to provide immediate home repairs. In many cases, residences are not fit to live in and occupants are left with more repairs in the long term.

During her testimony, Stephanie addressed the inequitable opportunities individuals with disabilities face in accessing and benefiting from FEMA’s Individual Housing Program. Her testimony focused on the agency’s failure to provide a transparent reasonable accommodation process and its discriminatory habitability standard, which denies individuals with disabilities the benefits of housing assistance and places some at a substantial risk of homelessness and unnecessary institutionalization.

Stephanie called attention to FEMA’s habitability standard, which assumes and generalizes that all applicants can live safely and securely in the same type of environment after a disaster without risk or injury. Some individuals with disabilities who have underlying, non-obvious health conditions, require an alternative analysis of the habitability of that residence. After a hurricane or flooding event, applicants with such impairments as asthma, cancer, lupus, sickle cell or other auto-immune deficiencies cannot remain in mold infested homes without the threat of injury. Without the ability to accommodate or modify FEMA’s habitability standard for eligibility in the housing program, FEMA’s “Safe to Occupy” reason for denial is arbitrary, and discriminately weeds out individuals with disabilities from benefiting from housing assistance.

In her remarks, Stephanie also emphasized the unlawful barriers individuals with disabilities face because they are denied meaningful access to FEMA’s programs and services due to the agency’s lack of a public, transparent reasonable accommodation process. “In the aftermath of a tragedy, disaster survivors with disabilities have no way of knowing how to request or what type of accommodations to request in certain situations,” she said.

Other panelists included National Low Income Housing Coalition Vice President of Public Policy Sarah Saadian, Karen Paup of Texas Housers, Chrishelle Palay of the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, and Sapna Chittur Aiyer of Lone Star Legal Aid.

Rachel Zummo is a 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps who was hosted by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. Stephanie Duke is a 2018 Fellow who participated in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, and is now a 2020 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program hosted by Disability Rights Texas.  

To read more about the Fellows in our Disaster Resilience Program who are helping communities prepare for and respond to the unique challenges arising from all kinds of disastersvisit here.