Representing themselves in court, some Nebraskans keep homelessness at bay

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February 16, 2016 - 6:45am

By representing herself in court Heather Maley hoped to change her life. She’s begun to see signs her strategy worked. She’s not homeless. She has a job.

Maley is currently working through the final stages of federal bankruptcy protection in the hopes of repairing her tarnished credit history.

Last year she stood before a county judge and successfully set aside a five-year old conviction on a criminal case that hindered her getting a full-time job.

In both cases she returned to court to repair the damage done by her alcoholism and bad choices with money and lifestyle.

“There definitely is light at the end of the tunnel with this,” Maley said. “This is a huge, huge milestone.”

The process, she believes, removes obstacles to rebuilding her life. “I think it can keep you stuck and remaining homeless,” she said. “I think it can keep you stuck in your addiction.”

There are no readily available estimates on how many people in or on the verge of homelessness take on their legal problems themselves. In fact, representing yourself in court is ordinarily considered a bad idea. However, Maley took advantage of a strategy being recommended with greater frequency by advocates for homeless and low income individuals needing to clear away legal matters threatening their ability to move ahead.

Nor did Maley navigate the sometimes intimidating process without guidance. Some social service agencies work with a certain number of clients to prepare required paperwork and familiarize them with the basics of the process so they can appear in court on their own behalf without an attorney at their side.

 “It has been remarkable,” Legal Aid of Nebraska attorney Lee Wroblewski said. She finds those who take on the responsibility discover “it means so much more to them and they're really more invested in the process.”

The benefits of tackling the court cases can be dramatic. Landlords or potential employers get understandably uneasy when flags of a troubled past pop up during routine background checks.

 “It's incredibly overwhelming,” Wroblewski said. She believes getting these cases settled can be the first step in “identifying what the barriers are to getting back to being self sustaining.

“If you're homeless there's undoubtedly a number of issues that you need help with,” she said.

At Legal Aid the self-help approach grew from the realization their small staff of attorneys could not be in court for dozens of people needing help with comparatively minor matters in the courts. The people facing threats from a collection agency did not see their personal issue as a minor problem. Wroblewski says the approach “has allowed us to help thousands of more clients instead of saying no I can't help you.”

For the clients selected for self-help, Wroblewski spends time ahead of the person’s court date teaching the basics of managing paperwork and procedure on their own. “I can help you fill out these papers” she tells them, while explaining “what's going to happen when you go to court and then I'm here in case there's a problem.”

She says “the time spent on that case is significantly less” for the agency than if Legal Aid staff handled all aspects of the case.  She says “it lets me help more people in a bigger variety of cases.”

(Many of the forms available for citizen legal self-service are available on the Nebraska Judicial Branch website HERE)

For Maley, there was a need for a two-prong approach. First, she needed to address a previous criminal conviction. Secondly, she needed to respond to a lawsuit filed by a collection agency which damaged her credit history.

Her life began to slide off track late in high school. Smart and a good softball player, Maley says hard drinking and her stubborn attitude put her in almost constant conflict with her parents. “I wanted nothing to do with them,” she recalled. She moved out and the trouble really started.

The drinking slid into addiction. The more unreliable she became the harder it was to keep a job.

Heather Maley leaves the federal courthouse after her bankruptcy hearing. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

A portion of Maley's petition to set aside her conviction for misuse of the debit card.

“I didn't have a place that I called my home,” Maley said. “I went from place to place just to support my habit.”

Each time she found a place to stay, after a few days “they'd get sick and tired” of her drunkenness and bad behavior and ask her to move out.

“She did not have a permanent address. She is what a lot of people call a couch surfer,” Wroblewski said.

The lack of stable housing gets in the way of getting and keeping a job as well. Legal Aid caseworkers often see people struggling to find a job, only to be denied a position by businesses put off by the appearance of instability in a job applicant’s life.

“They want to know that they have a stable person that's going to have a shower every day and show up at work on time,” she explained. “If someone doesn't have a permanent residence they don't have those things available to them necessarily.”

Stability was not part of Heather Maley's life at the time.

In 2009, she was found guilty of "unauthorized use of a transaction device" after stealing a debit card from her parents. She swiped it so she “could go and buy alcohol and cigarettes and everything with it.” Her mother and father filed charges.

“That was their way of reaching out and trying to get me the help I needed,” she says with gratitude now.

In the middle of the chaos Maley gave birth to a daughter

Then came the final blow. By summer of 2009  Maley racked up her fourth drunk driving arrest. The court said enough and sentenced her to the Women's Correctional Center in York, Nebraska.

In her wake were a pile of unpaid bills. Just months before her jail time began a collection agency went to court to demand payment.

“As I'm sitting in prison my civil suit continues to accrue interest,” Maley recalled.  She would pay what little she could with her prison wages which “knocked a little bit off and then the next paycheck comes around and there's more interest."

She found herself in a situation similar to many one-time homeless people with accumulating debt.

“It's just been a vicious cycle and I feel like I will never get ahead with it.” 

After a little over a year in jail, Heather got out sober and ready to change. To stay off the street she lives with her parents. Her credit rating was in tatters. Background checks flagged her conviction, repealing potential employers.

“She had an associate's degree and was applying for jobs and she was specifically told that the misdemeanor conviction was standing in the way of employment,” Wroblewski said. 

Legal Aid agreed to take on Maley’s case. She met with Wroblewski and laid out her story and the challenges she faced after prison.

She’s adamant that she alone is accountable for what she’s done but she thinks “there isn’t any way that I can move forward and catch up and get ahead” without fixing her reputation through the courts.

It became clear Maley would be a good candidate to represent herself in asking the state of Nebraska to set aside her conviction for the debit card theft and filing for bankruptcy protection against her creditors in federal court.

Maley said the Legal Aid staff briefed her on “what would be expected” in each of her court actions. While the process was well outside her comfort zone, Maley felt ready to do what was necessary because “it is a chance to give me a second chance, whatever it may be to get back on my feet.”

The criminal case came first.

Under Nebraska law, someone convicted of a crime can request a “set aside” in which a judge has the discretion to void their conviction. As explained on the web page of the state’s judicial branch, “a judge must believe that it is in your best interest to do so and that setting aside the conviction is ‘consistent with the public welfare.’”   

It can be a simple enough procedure that the state court website has the forms needed for a set aside available on its website for anyone to download, avoiding the cost of an attorney.

In April of last year Maley made her case to Lancaster County Judge Laurie Yardley and concedes it “totally freaked me out. I'm not going to lie.  It is a very very scary feeling.”

With no objections raised by the prosecutor, Judge Yardley agreed to set aside her conviction.

The next step was filing for bankruptcy in the Federal District Court of Nebraska. Compared to many people taking that step, Maley’s accumulated debt of about $10,000 was small, but at her income level the obligation was crushing.

“It was something I didn't want to do," Maley said, “but I felt like there's no way for me to get ahead.”

She felt this process was in many ways more intimidating than requesting the set aside.

“It is. It's very scary when you feel like your life is on the line,” she confided. 

Wroblewski says for her clients facing circumstances similar to Maley’s “filing a bankruptcy is such a powerful thing.

“You're able to stop the wage garnishment. You can stop an eviction. You can prevent your utilities from being turned off. I mean, it's just this instant magic!”

She explained the bankruptcy process to Maley and worked with her on properly filling out the paperwork.

On the last Monday in January, Maley attended a hearing before the bankruptcy trustee at the federal courthouse in Lincoln. She brought a box stuffed with any possible financial record she might be asked to produce or explain.

“Once this is all said and done and (the bankruptcy judge) discharges it, I feel it will be a huge weight off my shoulders,” she said.

The hearing officer reviewed the status of her finances, stood and spoke approvingly about being hired full-time at her job at a marketing firm.

“I feel pretty confident,” Maley said smiling as she left the courthouse. “I feel like I did my best.”

She is still in bankruptcy but with a full-time job and a plan in place to pay off her debts, Maley believes she is in a better position to get a place she can call a home of her own for her and her daughter.

“Who wants to be thirty-some-years old living in the basement of mom and dad's house?” Maley asks. “I want a place for us. I want a place that my child is proud of that we can call our own. So yeah, that will be the next step on my agenda.”

Engendering that kind of confidence is another benefit of the would-be homeless taking responsibility for their own court cases, according to Wroblewski.

“They feel really good about themselves," she said. “They've been able to overcome that fear and have a good outcome and particularly for people who are pretty beaten down it can be incredibly empowering to finally be able to do something and have a positive result.”

Maley believes it certainly helped her.

“It has made me a strong person, for holding myself responsible going up in front of the judge,” she said.

“I know we can never promise anything in life but I will do my very best to never return to that lifestyle,” Maley said with a level of confidence she admits she would not have been able to muster just a year ago



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