September 2013

Written by Tim Harris, Executive Director
Real Change

A Pioneer Square business owner angrily compares homeless people in a nearby park to pigeons and demands in a public meeting that they be cleared away immediately. Yakima considers new anti-panhandling legislation, and sheriffs in Snohomish County are ticketing freeway on-ramp beggars for pedestrian interference.

While all of this is recent, none of it is new. Over the past two decades, as the numbers of homeless people have steadily risen, visible poverty has been criminalized across the United States, with a battery of legislation to prohibit sitting or lying on public sidewalks, camping on public property, overnight parking, panhandling, feeding people in public, and even the possession of a shopping cart or a blanket.

While these laws have added to the troubles that poor people face with fines, jail time, and criminal records that makes it harder to find housing and work, homelessness itself has continued to rise.

Recent budget cuts at both the state and federal levels have not helped. Over the past four years, more than $20 million has been slashed from Washington state programs offering mental health and addiction treatment services to the very poor.

Once proposed, these laws, driven by fear and prejudice, almost always pass. Seattle has provided a few recent exceptions, but these stand as a fragile hedge against the greater trend. (more…)

Written by John Midgley, Advocacy Director
Columbia Legal Services

After many twists and turns, the farm worker rights case Perez-Farias v. Global Horizons resulted in court decisions resoundingly supporting protection for the workers, and ended happily with substantial payments to affected farm workers at a special celebration in Granger. On July 25th, the great Delores Huerta, who started United Farm Workers along with Cesar Chavez, celebrated the victory with clients and the legal team. Huerta, a veteran of many battles over more than 50 years, remains full of energy and urged everyone to keep fighting for their rights. The case started nearly a decade ago when two large Yakima farmers hired unscrupulous (and now defunct) labor contractor Global Horizons to bring in “guest workers” from Thailand because of a claimed labor shortage in the Yakima Valley. Many local workers were let go or not hired and were replaced by Thai workers. CLS sued for about 600 local workers who claimed violation of rights under the Washington Farm Labor Contractors Act (FLCA) and other laws. (The Thai workers were mistreated as well, and ended up filing a separate lawsuit.)

After trial in federal court in Yakima, the jury decided that Global Horizons discriminated against Latino workers on the basis of race, and also committed other violations. The jury awarded damages to three representative plaintiffs and also $300,000 in “punitive” damages (for outrageous conduct). The judge later decided that the Growers were liable to all the workers for FLCA violations but not for discrimination. However, the judge refused to require the Growers to pay $500 per violation as FLCA requires, and awarded only about $250,000 instead of the $2 million plaintiffs claimed. The workers appealed and a federal appeals court at first held plaintiffs were entitled to the $2 million but then decided to ask the Washington Supreme Court to advise them on this state law question. The result was a unanimous Washington Supreme Court decision affirming that FLCA’s purpose is strong protection of farm workers and that the workers were owed $2 million at $500 per violation. The workers showed courage to come forward and, after a long battle, the courts backed their cause and strongly affirmed the protective purposes of FLCA. CLS staff Lori Isley, Joe Morrison, Amy Crewdson, Cheli Bueno, Rachael Pashkowski, and former staffer Yolanda Lopez (and others) worked on the case, along with Richard Kuhling of Paine Hamblen and (on appeal) Matt Geyman, then of Phillips Law Group and now with CLS.

Written by César Torres, Executive Director
Northwest Justice Project

Our Alliance for Equal Justice exists to overcome the many barriers to justice confronted daily by vulnerable low-income people across Washington State. The age of mass incarceration has resulted in untold numbers of already socially vulnerable persons, disproportionately people of color, also being burdened with the stigma of incarceration and the obstacles this poses to successfully reintegrating into society. Formerly incarcerated mothers face even greater obstacles.

Nationally, 62% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. (The number of women in prison has grown over 800% in the past three decades). More than half of incarcerated women report enduring physical and/or sexual abuse prior to incarceration. Because women are usually the primary caregivers, incarcerated mothers are more likely than incarcerated fathers to have their children declared dependent, simply because they do not have someone who can provide care while they are incarcerated. Even when children are not removed by the state, formerly incarcerated mothers often face difficult custody battles against their former, often abusive partners and their families.

Despite the overwhelming need, Northwest Justice Project’s (NJP) Reentry Initiated through Services and Education (RISE) Project is the only civil legal aid project in Washington providing targeted civil legal services to formerly incarcerated mothers. The goal of RISE is to reunite families and promote their stability through employment opportunity, housing and income supports.

Elizabeth Hendren, who developed RISE while at law school, regularly visits Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women to provide incarcerated mothers with legal information to help them begin planning for the challenges they will confront when trying to reunite with their children after release. The relationships established Mission Creek often carryover to monthly drop-in legal clinic at YWCA Passage Point, a housing facility in King County for formerly incarcerated parents. (more…)