Anyone remember the time white Europeans revolted and disenfranchised an entire continent of native indigenous brown people in the process? Or stop me if you remember the one about white Europeans enslaving black folks and bringing them to another land to help build up a nation “under God”? What about the time the USA interned Japanese Americans? Experimented on service members of color? Deported native-born Mexican Americans to a country they had never before visited? 3/5’s of a person?
Come on, America has not always been great or safe for native people of color or their descendants or trafficked or enslaved people of color or their descendants. ‘Making America Safe Again’ or ‘Making America Great Again’ does NOT work for people of color. It hasn’t been safe to drive while black, walk while black, sit in your living room while black, walk while brown, shop while brown, pray while black or seek asylum or refuge while brown or black. We can now sadly say it is unsafe to watch the Astros while brown.
What we need is an end to white supremacy and the normalizing of domestic terrorism while the racist in the White House spews defenseless hate speech intended to fan the flames of hate and engage his base toward ensuring his reelection bid and making America white.
How many times do we have to tell you ‘America’? Fighting words and white supremacy beget violence in a way that we refuse to accept as normal or inevitable.
Hate speech is not protected speech, please spread the word on that one, America! Fighting words are not protected speech, again, pass it on, por favor.
As a native Tejana/Chicana/Mexican American/Latina, my roots run deep in Texas, way before Texas was the good ole US of A. I also fight daily as a lawyer for vulnerable populations, including seniors, veterans, and traditionally disenfranchised folks in need of access to justice.
It breaks my heart that a friend of mine, a fellow Latina lawyer, was harassed at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas, my old stomping grounds on August 3, 2019. My friend G. Huerta* and her brown colleagues were called monkeys and told to go home to their country in Houston, Texas—while attempting to enjoy an Astros game.
Mere hours before the tragic and preventable terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas and then later the tragic and preventable loss of life in Dayton, Ohio.
El Paso. Then Dayton. Every day my heart breaks a little more. Again and Again and Again and Again. These incidents of harassment may seem like a turn the other cheek moment but they perpetuate the dehumanization of people of color and this is more than dangerous. It has seemingly been happening most of my adult life. It makes me wonder what, if anything I can do. Some days I am afraid to get on the train. Other times on the street, I wonder what I would do. When I leave the parking lot of the mall, I think, I made it. If someone bumps me at Costco, I wonder if they were mad that the aisles were full, or if they were upset about all the people of color?
After 9/11 I knew our world would never be the same. That same week, while in college, I remember working the front desk of the dorm I lived and worked in I(as a Resident Advisor) at the University of Houston. I knew it would impact brown men and people who look or worship differently than white folks. I feared the worst and wrote about in for a sociology paper and shortly thereafter became more involved in acting on my principles. I protested the invasion of Iraq.
I stood on street corners with signs and prayers and chants. I protested in the streets of Houston. Purple triangles on backpacks represented the people our government disappeared in its wrong attempts at ‘finding and punishing’ the culprits. I canvassed for working people and unions in Ohio and in support of undocumented workers seeking labor protections. I fought for clean water in Texas and our nation. I marched against the KKK, and later worked with undocumented immigrant children who came to the United States seeking asylum and refuge, largely due to the policies our nation put in place in Mexico through violent force or financial pressures and political influence.
I went to law school with the hope of making a difference. Student loan monsters keep me up at night, so does the 10th of the month, when rent is ‘due’. But after law school, I was blessed to fight for affordable housing and just federal and state housing policy. It helped me deal with what Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike did to brown and black and poor people.
I organized and recruited pro bono partners and provided direct legal services for low income Texas Veterans and then veterans and people of color and seniors seeking income and health security as they age in their communities. I woke up in tears that November morning, wondering what I could have done differently. I hugged my friends and colleagues as we prayed and hoped that it would not end up as bad as we feared it would be. Inside I knew it might be worse.
I sat paralyzed by increased depression and anxiety as white supremacists walked with greater security in spewing hate and committing even more hate crimes against Jews and black people and brown people across this ‘great nation’. I found myself at the Dulles Airport with friends and colleagues hoping to feel something. I was paralyzed again when folks started putting kids in cages at a higher rate and denying even the chance to seek asylum or refuge in this ‘great nation’. I feel fortunate to have been able to use theatre to deal with some of this heart break and helplessness. I had been off of social media mostly after 45 came into office, because it was too hard. And here I am back again, not knowing what comes next. What can we do to work toward change, against more violence and hatred. We know what should be done, but what can be done? What comes next? We get to decide together.
*friend’s name changed for this post
I was leaving work yesterday after a long day at the office doing the advocacy that makes my days so fulfilling. But sometimes, that same job and the task of seeing the world harshly impacting vulnerable people, that does not end when the 5:00 whistle blows.
It was pouring down, cats and dogs as they say. As I waited for the crossing signal, I spotted one of the gentlemen who often asks for change near my office. In his wheelchair, he was pushing himself across the street toward the signal, with his combined upper body strength and his sheer will pushing him ahead, he also somehow managed to keep hold of a large cup of change. His disabling condition, I imagined, along with the downpour of rain, were holding him back. It took me a second before I decided to and asked if I could help push him through the light. He did not hesitate before he accepted.
I held on to my umbrella and adjusted it out to cover us both and I did my best as I pushed his chair with one hand. We made it across the street but not before exchanging some chitchat. “It’s ugly out here tonight.” I recall saying. “It sure is.” he replied before continuing on with something else. I think he was talking about needing or getting new shoes, but I missed what he said because by that point we had made it across the street and we had managed up the ramp. He looked up and thanked me, but not before the cup slipped from his grasp and change was everywhere. I kneeled to collect the pennies and the dimes. And as I handed him the cup, and each piece of change, the rain kept coming down and I remember thinking that this scenario was all too much.
At the moment when I handed him the last bit of change for his cup, I was completely overwhelmed. When I was ready to leave, I patted him on the shoulder, I didn’t know what, if anything, that pat was meant for or what compelled me to do so. I think now, looking back, I hope it helped him somehow understand that I cared about him, that I wished him well.
As I made my way toward my train, my eyes began to well up and my mind was wandering; I remember thinking, he is a child of God.
There are many marginalized individuals, vulnerable people, persons with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness in a variety of ways, couch surfers, refugees, people living with mental illness or addiction, internally displaced citizens-folks here in the United States and folks across this globe, people are all struggling in their own way.
And yes my heart was heavy last night thinking about my friend and his change, the wheel chair he was sitting in all soaking wet and whether he had anywhere warm to go.
I wish that I could have done more for him and yet I am grateful for the chance that I had to serve him in even this, the smallest of ways. We can’t do everything, but we can each do one thing.
We listen to the stories every day on the radio, in the news, we read the blogs, newspapers and magazines. And yet we turn to our friends and colleagues, loved ones and lovers, shaking our heads. What is it that has driven our Nation to this point? Every voice cries out that this day in our Nation’s history is one not to be taken lightly.
Children and seniors, mothers and daughters, veterans and teachers in Michigan cannot drink water without fearing the ongoing and already devastating affects of being poisoned by the drink of life, today and always. Water, they cannot drink water.
There is ongoing gun violence in this Nation like no other. Gun violence in this Nation is literally like no other. Our mothers and daughters, sons and neighbors continue to be victimized and to die in vain. And we still, as a Nation, refuse to acknowledge that a “Constitutional” right to bear arms is less valuable than the right to live free of fear from senseless and tragic violence.
And much of this violence disproportionately affects people of color, the brown and black folks, wrongly pulled over, or verbally or physically abused, killed, by people in authority who have gone too far.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters are wrongly profiled as well and bear the brunt of the fear running through our Nation which refuses to be quieted through communication and discourse.
A man who wants to lead this Nation of ours, claims that all Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists; he refuses to disavow support from leaders of the KKK, one of the ugliest terrorist groups this Nation has ever seen and screams about building walls, reducing access to healthcare for people with low income and shakes his fist at every nation of the globe who dares to act in any way contrary to his ignorant rants.
This ignorant hate speech and these ramblings have actually drawn people–our neighbors and friends some of them I imagine, from the rural and urban nooks and crannies of our country, folks from small towns and big cities alike have voted for hatred.
People, I ask you, what’s going on?
Yesterday I met with a disabled client who is so disabled that he chose not to sit down in my office during the entire meeting. He was afraid that he might not be able to get back up. That was really hard for me to handle, to continue to do what I needed to do, all the while wanting to cry for him. I see a lot of vulnerable people but this angered me and hurt me to see, because I knew his appointment in my office was one based purely on government error which had caused him grave and serious consequences that are life-altering.
I met with him to discuss his Medicaid, including his Medicaid covered home health care benefits. Medicaid provides this low income senior a personal care aide who can assist him in maneuvering in and out of the hospital bed in his apartment which he spends much of his day in. These Medicaid home health care and other services keep him from living in a nursing home isolated from his friends, family and community that he loves. When he is seated, he has to keep one foot elevated for most of the day due to a medical condition which causes him greater pain otherwise.
He continues to be eligible for Medicaid but his coverage lapsed two months ago due to an administrative error. Due to this government error and negligence, he is now without access to medical treatment, for example he has been denied physical therapy and medical appointments that are critical to his continued health. He found his way to our office after a referral from a dedicated community social worker. This client is a victim of government inefficiencies brought on by, among other things, in my opinion, the WAR ON POVERTY in this country.
The War on Poverty, I mean to say, the WAR ON POOR PEOPLE. Programs that support and serve the most vulnerable among us are constantly under attack and they leave people like my client at risk for less opportunities to live healthy and fulfilling lives. My client has never not been eligible for Medicaid these last few months. He in fact continues to be physically and financially eligible for Medicaid. And because he is a senior, his Medicaid coverage helps pay costs (like co-pays and monthly premiums) for health care services paid for by Medicare.
The problem with my client is purely technical on paper: his Medicaid was not timely “recertified” so the coverage ended. But it doesn’t feel technical to him. It feels devastating.
He complied with the government requirement to submit his Medicaid recertification paperwork. The government agency has however not processed it timely, so the coverage lapses in a computer somewhere in oblivion and the results in reality are devastating.
An inadequate number of government staff to READ, PROCESS and APPROVE Medicaid cases affects people in real time. When you think about government spending and reducing waste, yes there is always room for improvement, there is always room for more efficiencies, but don’t forget about the seniors and the single moms, the children without food or medicine or medical treatment.
These are our friends, neighbors, retired teachers living on limited retirements, the elderly veteran living on nominal amount of VA benefits, the survivor of domestic violence and her children, these are the folks who are affected like no other when budget crunches and funding cuts cause critical government services to be cut in half.
This is not a post about how government workers do not care to do the right thing. It’s not about that. It’s about an inadequate number of people dedicated to do those things that we consider absolutely critical to keeping the myth alive that this is the greatest Nation on Earth. I mean, that’s what they say, and in so many ways it is. But oh people, “you have some explaining to do”.
What’s going on?
As a legal aid and poverty advocate, I help people who are often underrepresented and marginalized. And YES, I personally struggle with acknowledging that the situation(s) I find myself in, in my personal life, can never compare to those daily struggles that my clients deal with. And YET, student loan monsters keep me up at night. And YES, the world we live in sometimes seems incredibly scary, because as we all know, sometimes really bad things happen. And YET, I recently took a part time job at a retail store in order to keep up with my own financial obligations. And YES, family members encourage me to find a job that could put me in a better financial situation. And YES, sometimes I dream..not about a fancy new car or even a nicer wardrobe, but about going a day without a creditor calling to remind me that I am behind on some bill or financial obligation.
And YET, I am privileged to represent the 96 year old client that is having her home health care services terminated by a Medicaid provider because she was approved for a GREATER amount of services. My vulnerable client was approved to receive 24 hours of personal care services (nursing home level of care covered by Medicaid) in her home. When the provider learned her services were approved for an increase from 16 hours to 24, they decided to terminate her because they do not want to serve her over night. This violates a lot of laws and is just plain wrong. It is my joy to help her and her family. What an honor to be her advocate!
And YES, I am excited to report that a client who had been wrongly denied Medicaid, three times, was approved two days before Christmas this year thanks to our advocacy. This client receives Medicaid thanks to health care expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Too bad the government decided that Medicaid applications are now two bifurcated applications. Traditionally, and until very recently, a Medicaid beneficiary could submit one application to apply for Medicaid and they would be considered under all eligibility categories. Unfortunately for our vulnerable client with chronic breathing difficulties, her traditional Medicaid application was denied three times and the client was never advised about the ‘other’ Medicaid application through the Health Care Exchange portal. We helped her submit the new application, but here–she was without Medicaid for six months, received three notices from the government which did not provide her adequate notice of her appeal rights or the process for obtaining Medicaid through this ‘expanded’ eligibility category. Without our help, the client would not have had access to support and representation as her claim was reviewed. She cried joyfully the last time we were in court and the government brought us a copy of the approval notice. “What a Christmas miracle for me, I’m gonna call my doctor today for an appointment!” she cried.
AND YES, last week I received an email from a veteran client. His application for VA benefits that we submitted in August, was approved! That’s record processing time for the VA and for our client, with absolutely no current income and he was thrilled to have a check in the mail from the VA for $1,000 right before Christmas. AND YES, it was more money than I had in my bank account, but I cried for joy for him. This disabled veteran, with a history of homelessness, struggles with a number of disabling medical conditions. For his benefits to be approved just in time for Christmas, meant so much to my client and to my colleagues and me. That income will literally change his life. AND YES, that’s my 9 to 5. Pretty cool, way to make a living, right?
AND YET, it’s too bad my credit card was declined when I tried to buy a burger at Five Guys last week; that was a humiliating and humbling scenario a few days before payday. AND YES, I realize there are grave and serious things going on every day in all corners of this world in big cities and small. There is an absolutely unacceptable amount of aggression and violence and injustice perpetuated disproportionately against people of color and women. There are discriminatory decisions made everyday that prevent people living with disabilities and the elderly from equal access to opportunities for all sorts of things, including aging in place or entertainment or other services. Crimes against women and children and sectarian violence against indigenous people or religious or ethnic minorities across the world and in our streets, rightly keep us up at night and our prayers duly focused on global issues.
AND YET, we MUST pray for and WORK toward peace in whatsoever capacity that we can. I have always said, IF we are a people of faith, we must be people of action. I will say it again. If we are people of faith, then we must be a people of action.
So people, I pray and hope and trust that the small struggles I deal with in my life can bring me closer in solidarity to the people amongst us who need even greater help. The situations that I see every day in my client’s cases and in the stories they tell and written on their faces, I do my best to find a legal or advocacy remedy that I can work toward. And YES, I do my BEST to then lift up those concerns and I TRY to let them go when I leave the office. Just like the stories of racial profiling and world conflict that I hear about on NPR and Pacifica Radio, I listen, I lift up and I do my best to educate others.
BUT THEN, I try to find an uplifting or joyful piece of music, or a good cup of coffee, or the smile of a friend’s baby, or something that I can truly be thankful for, like a call to your mother or your favorite poem. I try to find peace in my day, as best as I can, because otherwise, they win.
This is supposed to be about sharing the stories of the low income, vulnerable and elderly clients whom I serve on a daily basis. This is supposed to be about the days when I cannot bear to leave the office because I have so many client cases to tend to. She told me “!Gracias, que Dios me la bendiga!” (“Thank you and may God bless you!”) This after not having had regular use of gas to cook and heat her home for nearly two weeks, despite our advocacy and assistance. But she thanks me anyway because that is who she is. He emails me incessantly about his sister’s Social Security case. And as frustrating as it is, I know they are desperately in need of her income. She has not had any for nearly a year, before reaching out to us. And today I met another client, this one with a monthly income of $400.00 from Social Security, desperately seeking any boost in income or resources that he may be eligible for after a lifetime of working in this country, he is entitled to this meager retirement based on a lifetime of working low paying jobs. Despite this incredibly low income, this proud man, recently naturalized as a PROUD United State citizen, sends money to his country of birth, each month to his disabled wife who is too sick to travel and cannot afford medical care. He came to our office seeking an increase in his income so that he can afford to send more money to his disabled wife. I shake my head as I even bear to write these things.
My student loan monsters are keeping me up at night again. And the articles that I link to below are not helping. Comparing a lawyer to her homeless clients and calling her better off, does not help. I understand that there is no set of circumstances that could put me in a position in greater need than the needs of my clients. I understand there are human rights violations taking place across the globe and in our backyard in our Nation’s own courtrooms, grocery aisles, schools and parks, civil and human rights are denied on a regular and unfortunate basis. And yet, we must do a better job here of conquering the law school loan debacle and the current law school financing method.
Student loan debt forces poverty lawyers and advocates into jobs that are not why they went to law school. So many people, especially minorities including women and people of color, people living with disabilities, people from diverse and rural backgrounds, so many people went to law school to bridge that justice gap. We want low income and older people as well as people traditionally underrepresented in society to have their voices heard. We know the value of letting the voiceless finally be heard. And yet, despite my parents having grown up in American poverty and being very, very proud of what I do, I hear them constantly encouraging me to move forward to a job that pays a better wage for me.
I practice law in a meaningful way that allows me to represent vulnerable clients who are often in crises. This job is tasking, trying, challenging, overwhelming and exhausting. And it is rewarding, filled with joy and the only thing that I can think could make me proud to call myself an attorney. But too many lawyers like me are enticed away from the work we chose to do, work that motivates and infuriates us at the same time, because the loans we accepted in exchange for the tools to practice are so high that we cannot live comfortably within the demands of this job on the salaries we take and given the obligations we have at this stage in our lives.
Many of my peers and friends are in similar boats. First in your family to go to college. Or first in your family to go to law school. Only lawyer in the family. Only person in your family to ever leave your home state. These circumstances, among others, placed us perhaps at a disadvantage when we took our undergraduate educations on or when we embarked on the exciting adventure that is preparation for the Law school admittance exam (LSAT). Some of us worked while we were in law school or were on food stamps and Medicaid while in law school. And yet, we finished. We passed our bar exams. We ‘made it’. Now we want to and look forward to and feel compelled to serve our communities by representing clients who are in dire circumstances that require the help of an attorney just like us. Someone who knows where they are coming from. Someone who can advise them with sincerity, represent them with integrity and treat them with respect.
Now I just wish we could figure out a way to ensure top notch legal education for folks who like me, may have worked several jobs during college and while preparing for the LSAT and who may not have been accepted to traditional schools or awarded the best scholarship. Folks like me, want to help those clients who remind us of our grandmother who lives in public housing who cannot read or write or our parents who grew up standing in line for the one Salvation Army toy at Christmas, our teachers and leaders who marched in the Civil Rights movement or our Aunt who burned her bra for women’s rights or our friend who protested the KKK or our family members who proudly served our country. We all want to do our part to make our loved ones proud and to serve our community and those folks traditionally without a voice–we want to help them be heard, we just need some help along the way.
What do we want?????
A revolution in the way we finance education in this country.
When do we want it? NOW!!!!!
How many days do you honestly wake up thinking just how abundantly blessed you are? I am asking myself that very question as I realize that I have not posted on this blog in over a year. This realization concerns me because the intent of this blog was to help me reflect on my daily experiences advocating for people with limited financial means. This blog is supposed to help me better become an advocate for myself too; I am working on helping myself so I can better help others and working on serving others so that I may better focus on myself.
Returning to the question, how often do any of us wake up recognizing just how truly prosperous we are? I am not just speaking of financial prosperity, but prosperity in all its forms. Health, Wealth and Love–these are forms of prosperity, and they are all relative to each person’s state, we define our successes differently–as we should.
First of all, you woke up. Many of our loved ones, brothers and sisters have fallen asleep and were called home, you were not. Most of you likely awoke from a sleep, while in a bed. Far too many human beings sleep on streets, in alleys, in cars and shelters. They long for the bed that you chose not to make this morning as you ran for coffee. Next, you may have showered, while water ran down the drain and you lathered your body, did you think of those without access to safe and clean water? Many folks in countries across this world, villages and towns are without access to safe, clean drinking water–let alone water to waste on bathing. This happens in the US of A, sometimes too, just look at the human rights violations that were taking place as Detroit tried to punish its residents for years of the city mishandling its own government and its water problems. Later, you may have made a light breakfast, I for one, had a bagel and an apple, while I comfortably drank my coffee and listened to music–mentally preparing for the day.
You may have got in your car, or on the bus or train and went about your daily commute to the office, to the restaurant, to the refinery, to the classroom or the garden. You might have even grumbled about the traffic, the commuters, the hustle and bustle. But you made it to your place of employment, because fortunately, you have a place of employment. Once you arrived you were ready to do an honest day’s work–for what we should all hope is an honest day’s pay.
I for one, know that it is easy for me to become absorbed in details…details that when I stop to reflect on them, appear trivial and yet, in the regular course of the day, when these things come across my screen, my day, my mind–they consume me, undeservedly so.
And yet. It is a new day, a new day, a new day. Many of my clients are fighting to keep their homes, or better yet to keep the electricity on in their homes. Some of my clients do not have electricity in their homes right now, and use candles for light and blankets to keep warm. We are trying to resolve those issues. One of my homeless clients, without income, wakes up every morning and makes himself busy in the community–because the shelter he lives in does not allow ‘day dwelling’.
I am working to better recognize my abundant blessings; these blessings allow me to serve those who are without or who have less. I know we are all in a position to serve others, we just have to recognize, the tools, the gifts and yes the blessings we have been given, have acquired and developed–and then we have to keep our eyes open long enough to see where the needs exist and where we can best serve others in the community we call home.
He served our country bravely. At one time he played piano with the best of them but his body is failing him now. He had lived a good life, despite the fact that 14 years ago he was diagnosed with a disease that caused his body to betray him. He had trouble with all kinds of mobility, but his mind was as sharp as a tac and he was a fighter. He kept active by reading and staying up to date on all of the news and politics that he could tolerate. And he had his routines. Watching the squirrels in the trees outside of his window, and with the help of his home health aid, he loved to walk around in his life-long neighborhood, shopping trips and visting with his friends and neighbors.
When he contacted us it was after the local government decided to reduce his home health services from 24 hours a day to 16 hours a day. This reduction would have been devastating-it would have likely caused him to head to a nursing home because of all of his needs. Luckily, he found us and we were able to request a hearing in time to keep his much-needed benefits in tact. I worked with him almost completely by phone, because travel was very difficult for him. A colleague of mine met with him in person while I spoke with him by phone. I agreed to represent him in this wrongful reduction of his benefits.
He was the type of client that makes our jobs easier. Not that the difficult ones are not as equally deserving of access to justice. He just cooperated so much that it made my work on his case so much easier. He was always alert and almost always able to answer questions related to his needs and our case strategy. The issues were clear, there was no reason his benefits should be reduced, because he was still medically and financially eligible for them.
The government however was hell bent on dragging the case out and for five months we prepared for a hearing all the while, he remained in the comfort of his home-unless his medical conditions caused him to spend a night in the emergency room.
My client was nearly totally reliant on his home health worker. When I finally had the chance to visit with him in his home to prepare fully for the upcoming hearing, I was overwhelmed. His physical limitations were so obvious to me–how could the government call into question his needs? It was difficult for me to not cry as I saw him struggle to hold his head up. I saw the way his aid followed him on every move. I knew after an hour that he was too tired to continue, so we had to wrap up quickly. I know at the end of our meeting, his catheter bag had to be changed so I had to rush out of there.
I began to take his case personal, as I know I should not. But I did. I fought hard for him and leading up to the hearing, I prepared the law, the facts, the entire case–it was going to be a full proof case!
For the first day of the hearing he actively participated. He took notes, despite the fact that at times he could barely read his own writing, he was able to point things out to me that the government relied on that were incorrect. He was inspiring. We took breaks often during the hearing because he was easily tired and because he needed the rest.
There was so much to present in his case that had to continue the case for a few weeks to conclude the testimony. And when the news came that he was in the emergency room the day after the hearing, I felt it. The guilt. Did I push him too hard when we decided to go until 5:00? What if I had advised him against participating in the hearing, would he have not been in the ER? Several weeks passed and as my colleagues and I prepared for the final day of testimony, it didn’t look good. I represented him at the last day of the hearing and he died three days later.
It was hard to come to terms with losing someone you intensely fought for but barely knew. He was kind. He was courageous. He was a fighter. And because of our help, he had his benefits for the last six months of his life –that’s something right?
But it still stings, when I think about what it would have been like to get the W for him. How happy he would have been knowing that he was going to be able to remain in his home without fear of losing his benefits. How great it would have been to show the jerk lawyer from the government what the truth was all about. What is right, is right.
None of that, instead it is over. I had hoped to get a court order ensuring that his benefits were protected. Instead, God had other plans and called him home. He is finally at peace. I bet he doesn’t need any help walking around.
They lied to her to gain her trust. Spoke to her in her native language; shared their love of their home country with her, all the while scamming my sweet client into switching utility providers. They said they were with the local utility company. They showed her a valid looking identification card that seemed to indicate they were telling the truth. And they promised her discounts on utilities that would make anyone jump on board. In reality, they used her utility account number to switch her to another provider–and in the months that followed she saw bills that were more than triple what she had previously been paying.
She came to me for help with what we call a public benefit check. She had recently become disabled, was no longer able to do her past work and had exhausted her vacation pay. She was anxiously awaiting Social Security Disability benefits and had come to my office for help. We conduct public benefit checks often in the legal services industry, to review what public benefits, if any, that a client may qualify for so that we can help them apply; these benefits often make the difference between getting by and living.
During this routine check, I discovered she was not paying utility bills to her local provider alone, instead she had been inadvertently enrolled in a separate public utility provider, who she was ‘contracting’ with for the ‘services’. This is all a part of the overall utility ‘deregulation’ effects. Folks say the deregulation of the energy market provides choice for consumers. But in my mind and experience, it undermines the utilities we all rely upon. To me, deregulation of the energy market tears away at community connectedness. With all of this “choice”, we are left with so much confusion about which ‘service provider’ is legitimate, trustworthy and ultimately accountable to the public it is ‘tasked’ with serving. Hence, scams like the one that happened to my client can take years for government agencies to investigate. All the while, a ‘licensed and regulated’ energy ‘provider’ is not only defrauding countless people across the nation but is also engaging in anti-competitive and illegal scams to ‘compete’ with the public utility provider.
In my client’s case, she had been fraudulently enrolled as a customer of the company we will call “No Stars Energy”. No Stars Energy knocked at her door, speaking her native language, Spanish. The representative from No Stars Energy told my client a lie about a utility discount program that the public utility company was getting the word out about. My client then showed her bill so that the representative could ‘explain’ how much she could potentially save. Although my client saw a slight decrease for one month, it was in the months that followed that she noticed her bill would eventually triple. She did not understand that the electricity she consumed was being billed to her at more than triple the rate that the public utility charged; she did not even know that she had switched companies.
When we discovered what happened, I advised her of her rights. I agreed to help her file complaints with the local attorney general, public utility commission and the Federal Trade Commission. She will file a police report and we have decided to reach out to the media. These complaints cannot correct the sense of humiliation and loss and the anger that she feels over having been lied to and taken advantage of. Not to mention the bills she over paid for several months, which we are looking into.
When we spoke to the representative from the public utility company, my client asked again and again–“how can they show the ID of your company, how can they lie to me and so many others and get away with it?”. It was sad to see how much it affected her. In the end, it has really affected me too. This type of targeted scam is so unsettling. These are tough economic times. So many low-income and vulnerable people, especially seniors are at risk for this type of exploitation. It is even more upsetting because it seems at this time, we should be counting on our friends and neighbors, now more than ever.
Utility providers rarely provide discounts and rarely make unsolicited house calls. Contact your city’s 311 or municipal offices to ask about legitimate and local government assistance for utility costs, if you are in need of assistance with utilities. Your valid utility provider will rarely, if ever, contact you at home to discuss this type of help.
If you have a question or concern about something like this, call your utility provider or the police. Watch out, everyone. Guard your utility account numbers in the same way that you would guard your social security number, because in this day and age, it only takes an account number for this type of fraud to take place.