It’s like a huge weight off my shoulders

Theresa had will preparation on her to-do list for a long time. An upcoming surgery made the task more urgent. So when we she heard that St. Ambrose Legal Services was coming to her senior apartment community, Essex Co-Op, for Wills Wednesday, she was thankful for the opportunity to cross it off her list.

This Wills Wednesday event was one of seven offered by St. Ambrose in the fall of 2021, serving 44 clients in total. Woodlawn Senior Center and St. Ambrose partnered to put on many of the Wills Wednesdays events.

Wills Wednesday events bring attorneys into the community to meet residents where they are and prepare critical documents like wills, advance directives, and power of attorneys at no cost. Many attorneys charge $500 – $3,000 to prepare a will, a figure that is prohibitive to many older people.

St. Ambrose attorney Jeffrey Hayes hands Theresa her newly created will.

“If someone has a home and passes away, for a lot of families – especially for those in Baltimore City and County – it is incredibly important to keep that home in the family to maintain home ownership.  This program helps people avoid the probate process. It makes the end of life process, which is hard and financially challenging already, a little easier for folks,” explains Katherine Donnelly, a St. Ambrose attorney.

In 2021, the St. Ambrose legal team helped community members prepare 121 wills. Legal services like these increase housing stability by supporting families to build and preserve assets and take greater control of their financial legacy.

As she took her newly created will in hand, Theresa stated, “It’s like a huge weight off my shoulders, it frees my mind from being worried and concerned…peace of mind is what it is.”

As always, if you are have any questions regarding estate planning, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, ext. 209.

Small dollar fund supports struggling homeowners

In March of 2020, the federal government issued foreclosure and eviction moratoriums, orders that helped secure housing for renters and homeowners alike during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these policies prevented millions of residents from losing their homes, they expired during the summer and fall of 2021, threatening the housing stability of millions of renters and homeowners who were still behind on bill payments. Community members facing eviction in Baltimore turned to agencies like St. Ambrose for help.

As the pandemic unfolded, our attorneys observed that the forbearances and deferments that lenders offered were helpful stopgaps but they were not permanent solutions and have the potential to create longer-term problems.

Homeowners like Lynne Frankel felt the impacts of this process acutely. Ms. Frankel attempted to work with her lender on her own to resolve her mortgage default and avoid foreclosure. For two years, she struggled to make payments that were double her normal amount, and ultimately could not sustain them. “I felt set up for failure and let down,” said Ms. Frankel, “because they literally said I could afford the payment without a modification.”

This led Ms. Frankel to St. Ambrose. She worked with attorney Owen Jarvis, who helped her secure approval on a loan modification, which would resolve the mortgage default and give her affordable monthly payments. Payments on the new modification were set to begin in a month, and things were looking up; Ms. Frankel was going to save her home from foreclosure once she finalized the modification by making her first payment.

But then disaster struck. In the month before her first payment came due, Ms. Frankel’s sister passed away. She had to fly out of state to help make arrangements and provide care for her nieces. The financial aspect was difficult, but emotionally, Ms. Frankel was dealing with an even greater weight.

“This was a very sad time for our family, coupled with the stressful burden of fighting foreclosure for a second time,” she said. At this point, she had already tried everything to make her finances work. “I had to get a second job again, which caused medical issues, so I had to quit that second job.”

However, just as things seemed dark, St. Ambrose was able to provide a bit of light. Through the SHOW Fund, St. Ambrose was able to pay money directly to Ms. Frankel’s lender to help her afford her other expenses. Upon first hearing that this was possible, she was brought to tears.

“I received assistance with a partial payment of my mortgage so that I could pay for my flight to Wisconsin in support of my nieces and their mother, who was using at-home hospice care due to cancer,” she said. “Owen Jarvis helped stay on top of my lender and helped get my home loan modification approved with an affordable payment.”

Since then, Ms. Frankel’s situation continues to improve. The home she had lived in for 13 years was able to avoid foreclosure.

While the impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt for months and years to come, St. Ambrose will remain an innovative and steadfast resource and navigator for those in need.

Stable Housing Adds Up for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

“Now that I’m in a stable place, I do want to go back to school. I think I want to go back to school for accounting. Because I’m really good at math. That’s a goal of mine, to get my degree or certificate.”

At the age of 19, Selena* found herself kicked out of her home with no stable alternative. Using what she had, she was able to stay safe and mostly sheltered despite her new circumstances. Still, her situation was by no means easy; Selena’s home life was riddled with constant disruptions, forcing her to continuously seek new shelter arrangements and employment opportunities.

“I got kicked out of my mom’s house when I was 19 years old,” she said. “I bounced around from house to house, couch to outside. Oh my goodness, I moved probably 12 times one year; every year I moved a lot. I stayed in homes that were roach infested. That was just crazy. I worked at Dollar General, I worked at Amazon as a delivery job, I worked at Amazon inside of the warehouse, I worked at Firehouse Subs in southern Maryland.”

This unstable lifestyle certainly wasn’t ideal, and Selena was looking for a way out. Homeless shelters became an important resource for her, especially in Baltimore, providing a more reliable place to stay. On a given night in Baltimore, over 1,100 people rely on emergency homeless shelters. But this is only a fraction of the almost 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. For many, shelters can be uncomfortable, insufficient, and occasionally even dangerous. Finally, Selena stumbled across St. Ambrose.

“I walked into the shelter one day, and I seen the sign on a billboard that said, ‘St. Ambrose: we help teens 18 to 24,’ and I said ‘you know what? I’m going to get this a try.’ They reached out to me, and told me that they had a spot for me. And I was happy. I moved into a home and then I eventually moved into the Hope House.”

Selena entered into St. Ambrose’s youth Homesharing program, where young people experiencing homelessness live with a St. Ambrose-partnered host. These hosts volunteer to offer space in their home for these youths to live and get themselves back on their feet. After a while, some participants, like Selena, move into Hope House, a home where participants in the Homesharing program live together, supporting one another, caring for the house, and preparing themselves to return to an independent lifestyle.

“It was nice being there,” she said about her experience in the program. “The house was clean. It felt so good to be able to just lay my head on a clean bed and take a shower and stuff like that. I was just so happy that somebody opened up their home to me and other people as well. It changed my life. It helped me become more stable. My mind was everywhere, but just to have somewhere stable, it helps the mind calm down a lot.”

Selena entered St. Ambrose’s Homesharing program in 2019. In the early months of 2020, Selena and the other residents of Hope House were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Selena was facing a unique wave of setbacks and frustrations, but she was able to lean on her newfound stability and weather the storm.

 “I lost my job on March the 9th, and then the pandemic came on my birthday. They shut the city down on my birthday, March the 13th, I was like ‘wow,’ I couldn’t even believe it.”

Despite the initial shock of the pandemic, Selena stayed active in her pursuit for a more independent life. Homelessness can be a major barrier to employment for many. While 61% of homeless adults in Baltimore want to work, only 5% are currently employed. Getting stable housing allowed Selena to seek out new opportunities. After securing a new job in May, Selena graduated from the Homesharing program in June of 2020 and now lives in her own apartment. She credited her current situation to the resources she was able to make use of during her time with St. Ambrose.

“Me having my own room; me being able to get on the computer and look up different jobs was great,” she said. “There were little educational programs; I was also enrolled in a Civic Works program when I was there, I completed that while I was in St. Ambrose. I wasn’t just staying in the house, I was always doing something.”

Selena has continued to find new job opportunities and now owns her own car. She even hopes to return to college to pursue further education in the near future.

This Is Home

Mary Ellen Jensen has a master’s degree in social work and has worked at Child Protective Services for 16 years. This work, she explains, is her way of giving back to the community that has supported her.

“I’m really grateful to be where I’m at in life,” she said. “I will work as long as I can work, as long as my health permits. I know that my goal is just to give back, because even now, if someone asks me to do something in regards to young folks, I have no problem to volunteer. Even if I stopped working, my goal is to bring to the table my knowledge.”

Twenty-four years ago, having a master’s degree and a steady, purpose-driven job might not have seemed possible. When Ms. Jensen first came to St. Ambrose, she had been dealing with chronic homelessness, housing instability, and addiction for two decades. Now that she has been living in a St. Ambrose home for nearly the same amount of time, she reflects on the way her life has changed.

“I was a person on drugs for 20 years. And I felt like drugs were more important than paying rent,” she said. “Once I got off the drugs, I got a job at a restaurant. And while in the shelter, I saved up $1,200. I got a house that’s in the same block as the house I’m living in now, across the street.”

After conquering her substance use, Jensen was also able to stabilize her housing. Housing and addiction often co-occur; around 38% of people experiencing homelessness are dependent on alcohol while 26% misuse other harmful drugs. Sometimes, addiction can contribute to housing instability or lead to homelessness, but often, substance use develops as a way to deal with the harshness of experiencing homelessness. Ms. Jensen’s journey toward stability had only just begun; even with her new house, the work didn’t stop.

After starting a new job in 2011, Ms. Jensen took the next major step in her search for a more stable home: a section 8 voucher. A section 8 voucher, otherwise known as a housing choice voucher, is a government assistance program that allows low-income residents to live in a home of their choosing with subsidized rent. But when Ms. Jensen went out to look for a home that qualified, she was left unsatisfied.

“Me and my two children would walk around in this neighborhood looking for someone who would accept my section 8 housing voucher and I was not able to find anyone,” she said. “I didn’t have credit for one, and the homes were not as immaculate the homes I thought I was going to be able to get, so I got frustrated; I was running to the end of my rope.” Her current home was run down, but her job was not bringing in enough money to upgrade her situation. If the housing choice voucher could not meet her needs, Ms. Jensen had few options.

Although her initial housing choice voucher search wasn’t providing satisfactory leads, St. Ambrose was able to secure a home for Ms. Jensen and her family. “It gave me stability,” she said. “And St. Ambrose would help whenever I needed assistance from them with whatever was going on in the house. And they treated you like family.”

Her children, who were seven and ten years old when Ms. Jensen moved into her St. Ambrose home, benefited greatly from the new stability. One of the best feelings was simply knowing they had a home, which was a relatively foreign concept for her children who had experienced homelessness for most of their lives.

“First of all, they were happy just to be in a home. I was trying to be the best mother I could be to them. This was the first real home that we had. A lot of people, once I got my degree, assumed that I was trying to move. But no, this is my home. It’s home.”



Read more from St. Ambrose:

The Importance of Estate Planning

Frannie is a 92-year-old low income woman who lives alone. She was concerned about her heirs and how they would receive her assets after her passing. That’s when she reached out to St. Ambrose to have a will prepared.

She told her St. Ambrose attorney that her husband had died, after which she sold their marital home. In total, she had approximately $70,000 in liquid funds from the sale of the home. She had worked with her husband for decades to establish their equity and she wanted to ensure that the funds would go to her chosen heirs.

Medical issues left Frannie with limited mobility so an attorney visited her in her new rental apartment. The attorney provided advice and counseling about estate planning. He reviewed her asset and financial documentation and told Frannie what was already taken care of in her estate plan and what still needed to be done. To tie up all of the loose ends, the attorney prepared a will for Frannie in her own home during the visit.   

After this brief in-home meeting, Frannie had an ironclad estate plan. She now knows where all of her assets will go after she passes away. The attorney also enabled her to avoid the probate process for as many of her assets as possible, saving her heirs time, money, and the headache that many experience while dealing with probate assets.

As always, if you are have any questions regarding estate planning, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, ext. 209.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of St. Ambrose clients.

Why Advance Healthcare Directives are Vital for Older Adults

Gerald had an upcoming high-risk surgical procedure. The 71-year-old Baltimore native needed a legal document to guide his health care providers in the event that something went wrong during the surgery. Gerald went to the Baltimore City Register of Wills where he was referred to St. Ambrose.

A St. Ambrose attorney prepared an advance directive for Gerald free of charge. This advance directive ensured that if there were a complication during the surgery, one of Gerald’s loved ones had the authority to make healthcare decisions on his behalf. It also allowed Gerald to dictate what kind of medical treatment he would receive ahead of time if he were to suffer a major debilitation.

Gerald walked into St. Ambrose’s office two days before his procedure. With such an urgent need, he was unable to secure legal services from other nonprofits with longer intake periods. He could not hire a private attorney because he lived on under $1,000 per month. From start to finish, St. Ambrose addressed Gerald’s needs in less than one hour.

Thankfully, Gerald’s procedure was a success. The fact that he had an advance directive ahead of time gave Gerald one fewer thing to worry about and the peace of mind so that he could focus on his health and recovery.

As always, if you are have any questions regarding housing law, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, extension 209.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of St. Ambrose clients.

Sylvia’s Story

Sylvia found herself living in a homeless shelter for the first time at the age of 79. Her Baltimore County home had been sold at a tax sale and then foreclosed on, leaving her with nowhere to call home. A social worker at the shelter helped Sylvia get in touch with St. Ambrose because Sylvia thought that the house sold for more than what she owed in taxes. A St. Ambrose attorney looked into the matter and discovered that Sylvia was owed a $46,000 surplus.

Under Baltimore County policy, homeowners that lose their home to tax sale have to file a motion in the Circuit Court to claim any surplus. This is simple for lawyers to do, but can be prohibitively complicated for people without legal experience. Sylvia’s attorney filed a motion to disburse her surplus, which she eventually received.

Had Sylvia automatically received her surplus, she likely would not have ended up in a homeless shelter. She could have used the $46,000 to transition homes in a dignified manner. Rather, she had to live in a shelter while going through the time-consuming process of finding and retaining counsel and then wait on a motion to process through the court.

While Sylvia’s case eventually resolved in her favor, she faced undue hurdles that many do not overcome. Without free legal services, she likely never would have received the money that she was owed. Sylvia no longer had to worry about her housing and health as she ages, giving her peace of mind knowing she would be taken care of.

As always, if you are have any questions regarding housing law, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, extension 209.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of St. Ambrose clients.

How this Advocate jumped in to help St. Ambrose and never looked back

“When I was a law student looking for a summer job that didn’t involve standing in a file room or making copies for 10 hours a day, I came across the opportunity to apply for a public interest grant and St. Ambrose was one of the eligible sponsors. Vinnie Quayle was the contact so I reached out and we met for a few hours in his office one spring afternoon sharing war stories. Prior to that encounter, I had never stopped to think about how much depends on safe, stable and affordable housing; from children’s performance in schools to job stability, mental and physical health, safety and future financial security. St. Ambrose had just filed a lawsuit against a predatory lender preying on vulnerable minority communities in Baltimore at the time of our meeting. The stories of abusive lending practices were heart wrenching and infuriating. They were short staffed and up against large law firms on the defense side so I jumped in to help and really never looked back.

During my tenure as a law student and then attorney at St. Ambrose, there was a guiding statement featured prominently in the halls and in many individual offices that read: The temple stands unfinished until all are housed in dignity. This statement is a personification of the work accomplished from the rowhouse on 25th street and forever etched in my own conscience. For this perspective and for the freedom I had to grow and become a better person and lawyer, I will always be grateful and supportive. The work that is done and the lives impacted by the Agency deserve far more support than my nominal monthly donation. Giving a voice to those who are without and ensuring that the most vulnerable are housed in dignity has never been needed more in my lifetime than it is today and I hope others will give as generously as they can in support of this critical mission.

Every day at St. Ambrose, we help our families make themselves at home in strong, stable communities where they can develop relationships with neighbors and create stable home environments where their children are able to live, learn, and grow.

When people turn to St. Ambrose, your generosity ensures that we’re able to provide for them.  Whether it’s preparing someone to buy their first home, making it possible for an aging homeowner to continue to live in the neighborhood they know and love, or helping one generation care for the next, your support can help us change lives.

Monthly giving to St. Ambrose ensures that individuals and families have a pathway to secure, stable housing, which is critical today and every day. You can make sure the families and individuals that come to St. Ambrose have what they need to survive and thrive by mailing a check or by donating online. To become a monthly donor at St. Ambrose, please visit www.stambros.org/donate and select “Monthly” under Recurring Payment options.

Your generosity makes it possible for us to consistently provide the highest quality services to those who turn to us in times of need in order to ensure a brighter, better future for all.

“St. Ambrose staff works tirelessly to ensure that all persons are treated with dignity and integrity. They make sure that our neighbors are given their basic human rights and Constitutional processes when one illness, one death, one divorce or one job loss brings them to the brink of homelessness. I am very fortunate to have learned these principles at the very start of my legal career. I had never purchased a house, read the fine print of a credit card disclosure or car loan application. With all of the wisdom and arrogance of a 2nd year law student, I walked into my first client meeting in the row-house turned office on 25th street, expecting to impart great wisdom on my first client. Instead, I was the one that very quickly realized I had much to learn. I was mentored and supported by my St. Ambrose colleagues and Board Members from that day forward as I stumbled through many more client meetings, hearings and legislative sessions. I quickly learned that during down economic times, the voice of the most vulnerable amongst us is often the one first ignored and too quickly vilified. And I learned that it is up to all of us to stand up for those marginalized and fight for equality. St. Ambrose has never backed away from fighting for what is right and just and I am so grateful to have started my career on the right side of our evolving history.” – Anne Balcer

About Anne

I was born and raised in Northeast Baltimore in Mayfield. I lived in other parts of Baltimore City and County except for when I was in Virginia for my undergraduate degree and then ended up in Montgomery County, Maryland in 2013. I currently live in Kensington. My parents were children of Polish immigrants that landed in the Canton/Fells Point area of Baltimore City. My Mom went to the convent and my Dad to the seminary and both graduated but never took their respective vows. They met a few years later in a chemistry class at the University of Maryland where my Mom was studying pharmacy and my Dad medicine. My Mom passed away when I was young so it was up to my Dad to raise 3 girls on his own. I’m the youngest and he instilled in us a relentless work ethic and insistence on doing what is right even if it’s not popular. He came from very little and worked at Bethlehem Steel during the summer and a car garage during the school year to put himself through medical school. He remarried another Baltimore native, years later, and I was lucky enough to become the youngest of 6 total children, 4 are still in the Baltimore area. In terms of my immediate family today, I’m married to an incredibly supportive husband, Matt, a New Jersey native, and have two girls. Melli just turned 11 and is kind, compassionate and already a staunch advocate for social justice. Lucy is almost 2 and strong-willed (maybe a bit stubborn) and determined just like her older sister.

I’ve been fortunate to have the time and opportunity to coach my daughter Melli’s lacrosse team. It has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences to watch young girls develop confidence and teamwork that I know will help them navigate the difficulties of being a female in today’s world as they grow older. I also volunteer with local and national political campaigns. Having the right leaders in office and ensuring that our collective voices are heard through voting and demonstration is so critical to our future and that of my girls. Otherwise, my career as General Counsel for Congressional Bank, a community bank headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, and my family keeps me pretty occupied but I do sneak in some yoga, running, gardening, reading and cooking when I have a few spare minutes.

Tenant’s Rights: COVID-19 Fact Sheet

COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions and resources for renters.

If you or someone you know is currently dealing with a landlord who is imposing self-help eviction or is not adhering to the executive order, call St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center for free legal advice and landlord-tenant counseling: (410)-366-8550 ext. 209.

  1. What is the eviction moratorium?
    1. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Larry Hogan has issued an emergency order (Executive Order 20-04-03-01), that prohibits Maryland courts from evicting tenants who can demonstrate they are suffering a financial loss due to COVID-19.
  2. What does this mean for tenants who are delinquent on their rent payments?
    1. A landlord can file for an eviction in court, however, because the Maryland court system is closed, the court system cannot process any open or recently filed eviction orders or cases. 
    2. Unfortunately, the eviction moratorium is a temporary fix and does not excuse tenants from paying rent. However, tenants who demonstrate their financial hardship can pay their rent at a later time.
  3. Examples of situations that demonstrate a tenant is suffering a financial loss due to COVID-19 (but not limited to):
    1. Diagnosed with or under investigation for COVID-19
    2. Lost or reduced unemployment benefits
    3. Needing to care for a school-aged child
  4. When will Maryland courts hear eviction cases?
    1. Even though the Governor’s office has not confirmed the end date for the eviction moratorium, the Maryland Courts will start to hear eviction, foreclosure, and “pay rent matters” on July 25th, 2020. Meaning, evictions can be issued once the courts open on July 25th, 2020. 
  5. What landlords cannot impose: self-help eviction
    1. Under the Maryland Code, Real Property, Section 8-216, landlords cannot use self-help methods to evict a tenant. Self-help eviction occurs when a landlord uses methods of intimidation to force the tenant to move out. These methods include: 
      • Cutting off utility services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage, phone, cable TV, and internet. 
      • Changing the locks so the tenant no longer has access to the property. 
      • Removing the tenant’s personal items from the property. 

Landlords CANNOT use methods of intimidation to evict a tenant. These methods include: Cutting off utility services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage, phone, cable TV, and internet, changing the locks, or removing the tenant’s personal items from the property. 

What renters can do:

  • If you were illegally evicted:
    • Call 911: 
    • File an emergency case:
      • “If you were illegally evicted, you may consider seeking legal assistance and filing a complaint in court against your landlord. Because the courts are only hearing emergency cases, the complaint should be filed as an emergency matter if you are trying to get back into the property.” Even though the court system is closed, the court has made an exception to hear emergency cases. 
      • During your time as an evicted tenant, you should keep track of all of the expenses you have accrued as a result of your illegal eviction. These expenses could include but are not limited to “hotel bills and lost property.”
    • Document communication with the landlord:
      • If you are experiencing COVID-19 related hardships that will affect your rent payments, you may consider writing a letter to your landlord. The letter would be part of a paper trail illustrating your situation and how your COVID-19 circumstance will affect your ability to pay rent. 
      • You may also consider keeping track of all of the communication between you and your landlord in regards to your COVID-19 circumstance. 
      • If the landlord agrees or disagrees to accommodate your financial situation, you should get that in writing.  
    • Call 211 for financial assistance:
      • If you are experiencing COVID-19 financial hardships, please call 211, text your zip code to 898-211 (service is only available to Maryland zip codes) or visit 211md.org for assistance. This service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and in over 180 languages. 

Conclusion

Under Executive Order 20-04-03-01, even if a tenant is unable to pay the rent, the landlord cannot evict their tenant.  Therefore, if a landlord uses self-help eviction methods in response to a tenant being unable to pay their rent due to their COVID-19 related financial loss, the landlord violated the executive order and imposed an illegal eviction.

Note: Once the courts open, it is unclear how the courts will respond to these unprecedented situations.

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If you or someone you know is currently dealing with a landlord who is imposing self-help eviction or is not adhering to the executive order, call St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center for free legal advice and landlord-tenant counseling: (410)-366-8550 ext. 209.

 

Welcome Back, Grace!

Do you know Grace Parker?

Grace first came to St. Ambrose as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) from 2015- 2016. Grace returned to St. Ambrose as an Intake Coordinator and Housing Counselor from 2017-2018. Today, Grace rejoins the team as a Senior Housing Counselor!

“I am so happy to be back at St. Ambrose. I am proud to be a part of an organization that does such great work in Baltimore. As a Housing Counselor, I enjoy helping people buy their first home in Baltimore and experience Homeownership.”