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John’s Island service group funds attorney to help those facing eviction or foreclosure


John’s Island Community Service League is taking action to help county residents facing eviction or foreclosure due to COVID-19-related job losses or other disruptions, leading a collaborative effort called the HEART Program – Housing Emergency Advocacy Response Team – that will roll July 1.

This comes on top of the group’s earlier response to pandemic-related economic problems.

When the coronavirus began shutting businesses down, the League immediately stepped in and donated $250,000 to the United Way COVID-19 Fund – and successfully challenged other funders to contribute an additional $200,000 – to help newly unemployed or furloughed residents meet such basic needs as rent, utilities and food.

For the new program, JICSL will provide $150,000 to fund a dedicated legal aid attorney at the Florida Rural Legal Services to assist Indian River County residents in danger of losing their homes. FRLS has similar programs in Martin, St. Lucie and other counties.

Hope Woodhouse, JICSL immediate past president, said she had been surprised to learn that Indian River County did not have a dedicated legal aid person to help those facing foreclosure or eviction.

“Now, because of this project, we will have one. If it is successful, and we believe it will be, we will figure out a way to keep it funded,” said Woodhouse. “This project took more collaboration than any project I have ever worked on in Indian River County. It’s amazing. Everybody liked the idea and everyone was willing to help.” 

While initial referrals will concentrate on the immediate problem of evictions and foreclosures, group leaders anticipate clients will also receive assistance dealing with underlying financial issues, such as collecting alimony, child support, unemployment or disability insurance.  

“The only thing that they are not going to do is work on immigration issues. Our goal is to keep people from becoming homeless,” said Woodhouse. 

Even before the coronavirus, more than 50 percent of local families were either living in poverty or were one paycheck away. With many working families employed in low-paying hospitality and retail jobs – the businesses that were shut down first during what ordinarily is the busiest time of the year – a crisis emerged.

“We definitely saw through the COVID Fund that people needed help with their rent,” said Woodhouse.

For the past year, JICSL members Ellen Kendall and Michelle Julian had co-chaired an Affordable Housing Task Force, collaborating with the John’s Island Foundation and working with the county to address housing concerns. 

“But when COVID came, all those meetings and collaborations came to a complete halt, and we turned our attention to this, which was also obviously very housing related,” said Kendall. These are “the people who had the biggest exposure to becoming behind in their rent or their mortgage payments, probably for the first time ever. And those were the people we really want to prevent from becoming evicted or even homeless.”

“I think we all recognize that there is a large homeless population in Indian River County,” said Julian. “And when we saw this COVID hit we didn’t want to add to that homeless population.” 

“We found out this year, working through the Housing Task Force, that this county has all sorts of nasty ‘slum landlords’ who will evict people on a moment’s notice,” said Woodhouse. “They don’t give a damn; they’ll just say get out of the house. And people are so afraid, they leave.”

Although Gov. Ron DeSantis issued stays on evictions through June, the group does not anticipate another extension. On the mortgage end, the federal government has given automatic extensions of six months to a year. 

Kendall said they learned from the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council, United Against Poverty and the Veterans Council – the primary agencies distributing monies from the United Way COVID-19 Fund – that legal assistance was urgently required by tenants dealing with landlords and homeowners negotiating with banks or mortgage companies.

“We were hearing that this is what they really, really need,” said Kendall.  “We thought we could take this money and use it to fund a full-time position.”

“The HEART project will provide critical housing and other needed legal services to Indian County Residents,” said Jaffe Pickett, FRLS executive director. “We are grateful for the support the John’s Island Community Service League is providing as we address the needs of underserved individuals and families during these emergency times. We are also grateful to the private attorneys, who donate countless hours to expand our services to victims of abuse, elderly citizens, veterans, migrant farmworkers and other vulnerable clients.”

FRLS is located in Fort Pierce, so JICSL has arranged donated office space in several Indian River County locations for Florida Rural Legal Services staff. Locations include the City of Fellsmere Administration Building, Treasure Coast Community Health’s Gifford Health Center and the United Against Poverty offices.

“We’ll have this attorney available to meet with clients on different days in different locations,” said Kendall.

In addition to the IRC Bar Association pulling together pro bono attorneys for the program, Kendall said a number of attorneys living in John’s Island have also “raised their hands to participate in this program.” 

FRLS will screen people who apply to ensure they meet qualifications, including that they are Indian River County residents, are not earning more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, are not here illegally, and do not have other liquid assets. 

“If they have other non-housing issues, we’ll get them referred to other parts of FRLS where they have those sorts of attorneys,” said Kendall. “The efforts, generally, are to avoid eviction or foreclosure. We want to get the clients connected with the attorneys as soon as possible.”

“One thing we learned is that the minute you are evicted, it goes on your permanent legal record,” said Woodhouse. “We want to get in there before that happens so that people don’t have that blemish.”

“This is not to distribute rental assistance, but to provide attorney assistance; for counseling, for negotiation, for re-documenting of need for a mortgage or working with a lender. To the extent you need negotiation with a landlord, or you need help avoiding being thrown out on the street, that’s where the lawyers will come in,” said Kendall. “These are people who are working hard and have never missed a rental payment or a mortgage payment, but all of a sudden now their income is reduced.”

The JI Community Service League anticipates that Treasure Coast Homeless Services, United Against Poverty, the United Way and the Veterans Council will be the main conduits for legal service requests, but individuals can also call 888-582-3410. 

Florida Rural Legal Services will handle the search for the full-time attorney; in the meantime, they will use experienced attorneys who worked during the 2008 crisis. 

Attorneys interested in volunteering for the program should visit and click on ‘pro bono sign-up.’  The hotline number for clients is 888-582-3410.