Steve Elliott

As Interviewed by Simon Barrera, March 17, 2012

Steve Elliot: In His Own Words

In Travis County, we have about twenty percent of the population that lives in whatís called below the poverty level. So about twenty percent of the people living in Travis County -- and so thereís about a million people in Travis County, so thatís about two-hundred thousand people in Travis County live at or below the poverty level. The poverty level, for one person, itís about eleven thousand dollars a year, and for a family of four, thatís about twenty-two thousand a year. Thatís not very much money, and so most of their money goes towards groceries, and just rent and sustaining things. They canít afford to get lawyers. If they have a problem with their landlord or if they have, for example, bought a car, the car doesnít work and the dealer is not doing anything about it, they have no extra money to afford things like lawyers and other services.

This is something thatís always been a passion of mine. I have been practicing law for eighteen years and have always done public interest or civil rights law. From being very young, my mom and my dad always taught me about taking care of other people and making sure that I was an important part of the community, and [that] was something that I carried on when I was in law school and beyond. I knew that I wanted to do something that impacted the community, so thatís how I knew I was going to end up doing something in public interest or civil rights.

I think the government pays for some of the services for low income individuals -- pays for their health care, which I think is a very critical service, and makes sure everybody gets a free education. I think there is only limited amount that the government can do. They do provide funding through the legal services corporation to provide free civil legal services, but thatís a limited amount of money. And, in fact, that just got cut significantly; I think it was about fifty million dollars that was cut from the legal services corporation in a recent session of congress, which means that there is fifty million dollars less for the government to send to Texas.

I talk about my work some at home, and I try to teach both of my kids [about] having an impact on the community and that we are very fortunate in the situation that we are in -- for a nice home, a nice car; we can go out to dinner whenever we want; we donít have to worry about from where the money is going to come for our groceries. I try to teach that weíre fortunate, and we need to look out for one another, and that I think thatís one of the things. Both the boys are Boy Scouts because it teaches them the values. Boy Scouts is important, also, because you canít learn everything from your parents.

I have had -- I feel like I have had -- a lot of impact on peopleís lives in my career. Personally, in cases Iíve handled, I have handled cases involving critical health care. For people with disabilities, I have taken lawsuits to be sure they were not taken off their publicly-funded health care. The work that my agency does, Volunteer Legal Services, helps people with critical services. Many of the clients -- 35% of the clients -- come to us because they are victims of domestic violence, meaning their spouse is physically or emotionally abusing them. And so through our services they are able to separate from that abusive spouse or partner. It has an impact on their daily safety when you get away from the abusive spouse. Statistics will show that many cases of domestic violence that happen in our country, and, in fact, some of the severe violence and murders, involves family members and abusive family members. So, our work can help by impacting this.

I think I help other peopleís lives be better every day, making sure that we have enough money for our services and enough attorneys to handle the cases. For eighteen years I have represented people that needed critical services just to survive. They are so disabled that they need 24-hour healthcare and in several circumstances the state was threatening to cut off their healthcare and I took civil action to be sure that those services were provided so that those people were able to live.
One of the things that keep me grounded is hearing the stories of my clients. We talk about the people we are working for, whose cases we are handling and when people feel like, ďoh, people are coming to us that donít need our services,Ē and you hear a story about a client who is just scraping by -- barely has enough money to get through each day. That certainly energizes you and makes you work harder, knowing that people are in that dire straits, and it sort of is a way that energizes you to do all of your work.

It gives me a lot of perspective, as I said before, when you see the poverty that other people are facing, and their hardships. It makes you so much more appreciative of the situation you have. I am so thankful that I grew up with two parents -- and parents who had stable income, who had the means to provide for us in not only our everyday things, but could afford to take a family vacation every year, that my parents could help me with college expenses and things like that. It makes me very appreciative of my situation.

The most important thing that I do is probably making sure that everybody who handles one of our cases -- from our staff to our one thousand volunteers -- they treat that as if their work is the most important thing that they are doing. So, the most important thing I do is to motivate people to do their best on every case no matter, to do without judgment of the person that they are working with.

It feels great. I feel really lucky that I have the job that I have. It is so easy to get out of bed every morning knowing that I am going to do what I do. Lots of people have jobs that they donít like or that are not satisfying; my job is very fulfilling. It makes a difference in peopleís lives in the community, so itís a joy to have a job like I have.

I donít see any reason to change my job right now. I really like my job. Would I change my job? If the right opportunity came along I might but it would have to be an opportunity that would be both a job where I had an effect on the community, public interest or working for another non-profit organization.

It is very frustrating when we canít save somebodyís housing or get them their money back when the car was bought under fraudulent circumstances. Thatís frustrating when we are not able to help somebody do with a critical situation.

If we cannot find a lawyer to help them, we might send them forms or information so they can help themselves through the legal process on their own. It is called pro se when they represent themselves. We might do that or we might send them to another social services agency. Or if we canít help them or weíre not successful, they might lose their housing or, they might not have a car to get themselves to work. If we canít help them they probably end up in a worse situation.

The legal system is very complicated. It requires people to know not only what to say but when to say it and to make sure you meet deadlines and follow procedures and fill out your papers and have them filed in the right place. The legal system is not designed for people to do it by themselves.

It feels great when you work hard and you save somebodyís housing or they have been separated from an abusive spouse it really is fulfilling. It makes you feel good at the end of the day about what you have done.

I would not say that I would work harder form some people than others. I think seeing the difficult situations have some people have compared to others motivates me to do my best all the time because there are factors I donít know about in peopleís lives. There are things you may not know about, so I try not to judge people in situations. I try to use the most difficult situations that I meet to motivate me to do all of my work better.

Our work is critical. There is very little government money to provide services. The publicly-funded legal services companies only serve one out of every four people that come to them so there are three out of every four people needing services because they get turned away. Our program, through donations from lawyers and law firms, are able to provide those services that the public is not paying for.

About 35% of our cases are about family la --. So people involved in a domestic violence situation and need protection from an abusive spouse and eventually divorce and separation from that spouse. About 10% of our cases involve somebody who is being evicted -- a renter who is being evicted. The landlord wants to charge more rent and they want to get rid of this tenant and are evicting them, or because they have asked for repairs and the landlord does not want to make the repairs. Some cases involve transactions -- somebody buys a car or a mobile home and the seller might not have even owned the car or mobile home they sold them, and when the person goes to register the title they canít because it was bought under fraudulent circumstances. Often, those individuals are individuals who do not speak English and somebody is taking advantage of them. They give them a contract that is written in English and they only speak Spanish and the person desperately needs that car or mobile home and they sign the contract anyway, and often those contracts are a fraud.

About 5% of our caseload are people with disabilities. It is not a significant number of our caseload. There is an agency called Disability Rights Texas that is federally-funded to represent people with disabilities and disability related issues so many of the people who come to use with disabilities we will refer to that agency.

It is more difficult for people with disabilities to get services in general. They have lots of barriers -- they have transportation barriers; many people with disabilities donít drive. They take public transportation and the supplemental public transportation is not very reliable. They have trouble with communication, people do not understand they have a mental illness and have unusual behaviors which cause fear in other people. Sometimes the fear causes them to have trouble getting services because of peopleís perceptions of people with disabilities.