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Legal center needs money, volunteers

Funding isn't enough to pay salary of staffer

A Salt Lake beacon for human rights has dimmed in recent days. But a few volunteers are scrambling to turn the lights back up.

Last year the Multicultural Legal Center had an operating budget of $92,000, according to volunteer director Su Chon. And since Marlene Gonzalez became staff attorney in November 2000, she handled 160 cases. Yes, "that's one attorney" on 160 cases, Gonzalez said. Those clients were only a fraction of the people who called the MLC for help dealing with abusive spouses, exploitative landlords or deadbeat employers.

"We were able to provide $306,000 in legal services," Chon added, "out of that $92,000 operating budget." How does that happen? First Chon and Gonzalez worked countless hours pro bono — free of charge — and most of the support staff are law students and other volunteers.

But then this spring one of the MLC's largest funders, the Utah Bar Foundation, had to end its annual contribution of $24,500. American Express and other foundations, suffering amid the nation's economic downturn, also reducing their funding. A small piece of support did come from a Violence Against Women Act grant of $20,000, and Gonzalez said much of that has been depleted. VAWA is designed to help immigrant women whose husbands have abused them and refused to petition for their legal-resident status. Such women, Gonzalez said, are essentially held prisoner by their batterers.

"Many women end up staying in their abusive situation because they think, 'I don't have legal status,' " she said. "These women are mainly isolated."

But the MLC has reached a point where it can scarcely respond to any calls for help. Its voice-mail box is sometimes too full to take any more messages, its door at 309 E. 100 South locked.

"I'm sorry," Chon began. "We've had to limit or suspend services . . . we have people checking the voice mail, and we have a volunteer who answers the phone Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. We're trying to get more volunteers. We're supposed to be open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but now we're just seeing clients on an appointment basis." Since the MLC incorporated in 1997, the number of calls for information and counsel has risen to as many as 30 a day, Chon said. Immigrant battered women, she added, account for seven phone calls a day.

Meantime, the VAWA funding wasn't enough to pay even one staff salary.

"I loved working for the MLC. But I can't afford it," Gonzalez said this week. "I've put in my resignation. I've started my own practice."

End of story? Well, no. "I'm still the staff attorney until they find somebody to replace me," Gonzalez said. "I've wrapped up a lot of those cases. I have a handful, maybe five, on a pro bono basis. I can't drop them."

Utah's offices of Hispanic, Asian, Black, Indian and Pacific Islander Affairs have come to the MLC's aid. They plan a fund-raising golf tournament at Mountain Dell on Sept. 17 and performances by internationally known storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki on Sept. 9, 11 and 12 at various Salt Lake college campuses.

At the same time Chon and the MLC's nine board members are trying to dig up grass-roots support. They also have full-time day jobs, but like Gonzalez they refuse to abandon the MLC's mission of helping those with no other access to legal aid. Gonzalez gave as an example a case of a landlord charging inordinately higher rents to Middle Eastern tenants; she still has about 40 cases of immigrant women seeking relief from abusive households. In a three-month period of tracking, the MLC's clientele was 64 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, 9 percent black, 7 percent Caucasian, 4 percent American Indian, 3.5 percent Middle Eastern and 3.5 percent Pacific Islander.

Along with providing consultations, referrals to other community agencies and counsel, the MLC has sought to be a force for education in an increasingly multicultural Utah. On June 6 it held a forum on civil rights, and Gonzalez has urged Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to reintroduce the DREAM Act, an immigration reform bill that could help immigrant students apply for legal resident status.

But these days, MLC workers are hoping just to keep basic client services going. Chon tried to sound optimistic.

"I have lots of grants I'm trying to prepare and submit," she said. And while the MLC needs the legal community to contribute real money and time, "we'll accept anything, even in-kind donations (such as) office supplies."


E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com

Fund-raisers to assist MLC

For sponsorship and player information on the Sept. 17 golf tournament at Mountain Dell, call 538-8612.

For details about the storytelling performances by Brenda Wong Aoki on Sept. 9, 11 and 12 at various Salt Lake college campuses, call Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theater at 957-3322.