Displaced by fire, legal aid attorneys shift to Harvey shelters

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If you don’t have a home, you can’t get housing assistance.

That’s the toughest message Karyna Lopez, a staff attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid, has had to deliver to people who have approached her for help in the days since Tropical Storm Harvey pummeled the Gulf Coast.

“The most heartbreaking thing I have to tell people who are homeless is that they don’t qualify for FEMA,” Lopez said Sunday, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rental assistance, repair and other housing services.

In a sense, Lopez and her colleagues are homeless themselves.

Monday night, as Harvey’s rains continued to fall, a fire broke out at the downtown Houston offices of the nonprofit, which provides free legal services to people affected by disasters such as Harvey.

No one was injured – because of the storm, none of the 100 or so staff members were in the office – but the lawyers and support staff have been unable to use the building since the storm.

“We took a pretty good hit on the third floor,” with somewhat less damage on the second and third floors, said Paul Furrh, Lone Star’s executive director.

The fire was caused by an electrical issue, possibly related to the flooding, Furrh said.

Most of the attorneys got out with their laptops, he said, so Lopez and some of her colleagues are working in shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Center. Lopez was stationed Sunday at a table marked “free legal aid” in the George R. Brown.

One of the most common issues so far, Lopez said, is how to replace identification cards or important papers lost or destroyed in the storm. Another concern is the potential loss of employment when people can’t get to their workplaces.

“Texas is an at-will state” for employers, Lopez said, adding employees can be fired for not showing up. She advises people in this situation that federal disaster unemployment benefits may be available to tide them over.

After past disasters, including Hurricane Ike in 2008, some of those affected have sought legal help after being denied assistance – particularly grants to help make short-term repairs to damaged homes. Other legal aid groups have filed lawsuits against FEMA over this issue.

Lopez, who worked as a contract attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid after Ike, said denials tend to become an issue later in the process.

Lopez said her home wasn’t affected by Harvey, but some of her colleagues weren’t so lucky. Their personal difficulties, however, didn’t stop them from showing up at shelters with their laptops,

Because Lone Star’s phone system is down, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which provides similar services in South Texas, is fielding calls and referring them to Lone Star lawyers, Furrh said.

Furrh said several law firms have offered space for Lone Star’s attorneys, and the third floor of the downtown building might be usable soon.

“We’re trying to relocate staff as we speak,” he said.

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