Having a lawyer can make all the difference. Often, the obligation is real, in which case Tzedek lawyers can negotiate payment plans instead of a lump sum obligation to avoid bankruptcy and a damaging credit report. In other cases, the debts are bogus. One client had been the victim of identity theft; all of the charges on her credit card were in Florida, where she had never lived or visited. A Tzedek attorney accompanied her to mediation, where the case was dismissed.
Tzedek has found such errors as the wrong amount, mistaken identity, claims that were too old to be litigated and debts that had already been paid. With 40 volunteer lawyers in its first year, Tzedek has been successful in 90 percent of cases.
It has also teamed up with other charitable groups — such as the United Planning Organization and the Little Lights Urban Ministry — to help the poor avoid debt in the first place. It teaches financial literacy classes to help people make and stick to a budget.
Tzedek’s legal lifeline is nongovernmental and nonpartisan. It receives no federal money and attracts volunteers from across the spectrum — from former Antonin Scalia clerks to “progressives like me,” as Levinson-Waldman put it. Whatever your political sympathies, helping the poor to navigate our bewildering system and get their lives back on track is something to celebrate in this season of giving.
Writes for Creators Syndicate.