Before 5 p.m. on a cold and drizzly evening in early November, nearly 20 people filled the lobby of Woodlawn’s AKArama Community Service Center, 6220 S. Ingleside Ave., waiting for a chance to speak with a lawyer.

Just as they do every second Wednesday of the month, staff attorneys from Legal Aid Chicago, as well as volunteers from the major international corporate law firm, DLA Piper, offered pro bono counsel to residents about their legal concerns, no appointments necessary, no fees asked.

“The main purpose of the clinic is to provide (free legal) advice on the spot, give people those next steps,” said Melissa Bartolomei, supervisory attorney for pro bono and community partnership who leads the clinic in Woodlawn.

“It’s wonderful to work with people who are all focused on the same mission,” she said. “We are all out there trying to do our best for our clients and trying to make changes where we see they need to be made.”

Residents’ issues run the gamut, according to Bartolomei. From public benefits questions about food stamps and social security payments to criminal record expungement, Legal Aid Chicago and DLA Piper staff handle it all at the clinic.

So far in 2023, the clinic has assisted 163 clients with legal issues, most commonly helping tenants (or landlords) with the eviction process (38), residents with consumer law issues that may include foreclosure and homeownership problems, as well as settling debt collection (32), and a combination of family law and domestic violence-related matters (25).

While the number of family law cases has remained steady year-over-year, the clinic has seen a considerable increase in the number of eviction cases, mostly due to unpaid rent because of the rising cost of housing.

“For a while during the pandemic, we were seeing people who were losing their jobs, mostly due to COVID or the later effects of COVID, and unable to pay,” Bartolomei said. “Now, what I’m seeing is, yes, that the rent is increasing, and people just cannot keep up with the rent.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of the rental assistance around COVID too has gone away,” she said. “So, it really is just unaffordable rent (prices).”

Woodlawn averaged 469 evictions per year from 2010 to 2019 (the most recent years for which the data exists), according to the Law Center for Better Housing, placing it 13th highest out of Chicago’s 77 community areas. For reference, Woodlawn had about 8,000 rental units available during that time period.

The clinic has been in Woodlawn for more than 10 years, so many clients have returned with questions about separate legal matters, and also end up referring their friends and family to the clinic.

“The only types of cases we turn away are active criminal cases,” Bartolomei said, noting that Legal Aid Chicago can only assist clients with civil legal matters.

Nonetheless, when someone walks in with a pending criminal case, attorneys refer them to the Public Defender’s Office, which is required by law to represent anyone who doesn’t retain private counsel. Also, on the off chance that someone has a conflict of interest because Legal Aid Chicago is representing the other side of a civil case (as sometimes happens in divorce proceedings), the attorneys will make outside referrals.

Lawyers at the clinic refer around one-third of cases to Legal Aid Chicago’s practice group attorneys who represent clients directly, according to Bartolomei, most often in matters related to domestic violence and ones involving Section 8 housing vouchers.

Although the clinic’s hours are officially from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the doors open in the waiting area at 3 p.m. so that people can fill out their intake sheets and be added to the queue, which is first come, first serve. But as long as someone arrives before the clock strikes six, they get to consult with an attorney, eventually.

“So as long as they walk in by six, we consider them part of the clinic, and we will see them that night,” Bartolomei said. “We are often there until seven or eight at night finishing up.”

Woodlawn’s is currently their only free clinic in the area — the others are in Austin, North Lawndale and Wicker/Humboldt Park — but Bartolomei said Legal Aid Chicago is considering opening a fifth clinic in the south suburbs.

Besides Bartolomei, staff attorney Tara Carone and paralegal Jordan Sundt handle much of the day-to-day work managing the caseloads from the clinic. Melissa Picciola, director of pro bono and community partnerships at Legal Aid Chicago, is also a vital player in setting up their partnerships with organizations like AKArama and DLA Piper.

Bartolomei considers herself privileged to be doing legal aid work, especially in a place like Chicago where socio-economic disparities are vast.

“I always felt a purpose … to use my career as basically a vehicle to try to do the best that I can for my community” she said. “So, it’s the only type of law that I would ever want to practice.”

Woodlawn Legal Clinic next offers its free legal services on Wednesday, December 13, from 4 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. at the AKArama Foundation, Inc. Community Service Center 6220 S. Ingleside Ave. No appointments necessary; doors open at 3 p.m. For additional clinic locations and dates, please call 312-423-5938.

This story originally appeared in the Hyde Park Herald.

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