“Like A Nursing Home, But Shittier” — Legal Aid in a Broken System with Jota Borgmann
Jota Borgmann and I have been friends for over ten years in New York City. She is an attorney who advocates for clients living in adult care housing. We talked over Zoom in April of 2020.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
All views expressed in this interviews are Jota’s alone, and don’t represent her employer or union or anyone else like that!
RRD: Let’s talk about your work. I think I understand what you do — but can you just explain it to me?
JB: Sure. So I’m a lawyer. In the least technical terms that I can think, I am a free lawyer for poor people. More technical terms are like a legal aid lawyer or a legal services lawyer. I work for a non-profit that gets government and private grants to do that work.
So what that means is that I provide legal advice and representation to people who can’t afford it. That also includes all kinds of advocacy, not just representation in a lawsuit.
RRD: What does that mean practically? Who are your clients?
JB: The clients that I work with, they are all people with disabilities who live in institutions. By institutions, I mean nursing homes or adult homes.
Adult homes are this specific phenomenon in New York City. They are these huge 200 to 400-bed facilities that overwhelmingly house people with mental health disabilities.
They’re not like medical facilities in quite the same way as nursing homes, but they feel… When I first went into one, my sense was like, “Oh, this is like a nursing home, but even shittier,” was the feel of it. So, yeah, is that clear?
I feel like I spend so much time in my world and it’s such a niche world. The type of work and then the type of clients, I feel like sometimes it’s really hard for me to explain.
When I first went into one, my sense was like, “Oh, this is like a nursing home, but even shittier,” was the feel of it. So, yeah, is that clear?
RRD: Could you paint a little more of a picture of what that looks like — adult homes and nursing homes? I always feel like it’s one of those strange aspects of living in NYC, I’m sure I’ve walked by a building, but never been inside.
JB: Right, yeah, yeah. So what are these things?
I think people know what nursing homes are, especially given the news about who’s affected by COVID. People, I think have a sense of nursing homes or can relate to it. Maybe they’ve had a family member in a nursing home…
But, adult homes… So where are they located? They are mostly very isolated, so most of them are located in Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Especially the ones that are these huge facilities, really huge, more institutional type that my work is focused on.
They’re pretty run-down. They might have had a facelift or a new awning, to announce that they’re now assisted living, but overall … really run-down.
Most of them are pretty isolated. So the ones in Coney Island, they are at least a 15-minute walk from the Stillwell Avenue stop. They are on the Boardwalk, but not anywhere on the Boardwalk where you or I go when we go to Coney Island.
They are older, usually concrete or brick buildings with small windows from maybe the 1950s, 1960s. They’re pretty run-down. They might have had a facelift or a new awning, to announce that they’re now assisted living, but overall their physical plant can be really run-down.
And what it looks like…… If the weather is nice enough, there will be a lot people sitting outside smoking and… and you might see them rocking, you might see them pacing. They might be sort of unkempt, not put together, and might really be lacking appropriate clothing or might have really bad hygiene. That’s not universally true of every adult home resident, but that’s what the scene that you might see outside an adult home.
On the inside, it’s dark. Everybody who lives in that facility has a roommate and a very small room. So there’s no place in that facility where anybody has privacy.
Some places, four people might share a bathroom. There’s a dining room and a lobby with a TV blaring, people sitting watching the TV. There’s a loudspeaker usually and announcements are made.
People are called down to get their medication or called down for meals or called down to a doctor’s appointment, whether that’s a doctor who’s visiting on-site and seeing 50 people that day, or that’s getting on a van or an ambulette and going someplace else to see a doctor. Or going to a day program, which is a social place where you might go and get on the computer, have karaoke on Fridays, do some basic crafts, stuff like that. So, yeah, that’s the scene.
RRD: That definitely helps me visualize it.
JB: I go into these homes to do those know your rights trainings, and I’ll go to visit with clients. If I go into their room, there’s often not a place to sit, or maybe I don’t want to sit down because of bedbugs — that’s a big problem in a lot of these places.
People don’t have a lot of place to put their belongings. There might be a lot of stuff everywhere. And there’s just… I would say… the feeling… it’s dark, and often people are surveilled, and especially if I’m there.
The administration, the staff, they know who I am, they know I’m a lawyer and I’m there to educate people about their rights, and generally aren’t excited about that, so sometimes I’ve been followed around by someone. Or while I’m meeting with somebody in their room, somebody will just come into the room without knocking. “Oh, I need to check something,” just some kind of excuse to come into the room.
RRD: Can you talk about your clients financial situation? How is your work funded?
JB: Overwhelmingly, with just a couple of exceptions, these places are owned by private businesses. Usually family business, like the dad owned them and now the daughter or the son is taking over.
The majority of people who live there, their main income is SSI. That’s disability for people who don’t have a work history.
The average person in New York just living on their own, if you get SSI, your income is around $800 a month. As you can imagine, that’s not easy for people to do.
So if you or I became disabled, we would be eligible for what’s known as SSD or Social Security Disability, which is kind of like disability insurance that we pay into, based on our work history, and the payment that we get is based on our prior income.
SSI is for people who haven’t ever had a work history. Maybe people who have a mental health disability like schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder, or they didn’t get access to the treatments that would allow them to be able to work and manage their lives more and be in control of their lives.
The average person in New York just living on their own, if you get SSI, your income is around $800 a month. So that’s your entire monthly income to pay your housing, any expenses.
As you can imagine, that’s not easy for people to do. That’s why a lot of these people are in these institutions, because if they live in an adult home, the state subsidizes their income another almost $600 a month.
If you are living in an adult home, you get an allowance of $200 and then the rest goes to the facility for rent. The facility is also supposed to provide case management services and they provide three meals a day and a snack and activities, so this whole host of services that they’re supposed to provide, not just housing.
RRD: I feel like there’s a challenge for people like me, liberal-minded people, but who have professional jobs that are not doing public service. I don’t regularly interact with people like your clients. I want to help people, but it can be abstract. If I push myself, am I always seeing them fully as people?
So I want to understand your relationship with your clients a bit more, at a human level. How many clients are you working with at any given time? Is it 20, 50, 100? And what is your relationship? How well do you know them?
JB: It’s a real range.
Technically speaking, I have thousands of clients because one of my cases is a class-action settlement that covers 22 of these homes in New York City, and so that’s over 3500 people.
I’ve met a lot of those clients. Not a thousand of them, but I’ve met hundreds of those people over the years. A lot of it is phone contact, or interaction in large groups when I do those trainings.
And then there’s a smaller subset of folks who I actually meet in person, go to their rooms, have a conversation with them.
In terms of the number of clients where I have a really intense interaction and I know them well, that’s a good question. It’s a lot smaller group of people.
RRD: How do you set boundaries?
JB: There are definitely people who call me long after I’ve represented them just to talk, and it’s really hard to set boundaries.
I had a client call me recently. She was one of my first clients, that I brought an affirmative lawsuit on behalf of her. It was an amazing lawsuit and she won and she got money. It was awesome.
I’ve probably talked to her more than anybody else that I’ve talked to. But there was nothing that I could do for her current requests, so any time I spend on the phone with her, it’s just catching up, maybe providing information or resources to her, but it’s just beyond the scope of what I’m supposed to be doing with my time.
So there is this tension in that connection that I have with her, and having more work to do than I have hours in the day. And it sucks. It sucks to have to make that choice.
There’s a way that people really start to count on you for a level of support that’s just beyond being a lawyer. It’s emotional support and connection.
I had a message from a past client and he was just like, “Hi, I’m just calling to say hi.” And he’s in one of these institutions, he’s quarantined. He cannot leave the facility that he’s in. He was already really isolated when I was helping him, and it’s just like, of course I wanna call him and say hi, but I just don’t always have time.
Which is, to the larger point in your question. Seeing people as fully human, and there are always choices. There are inevitably aspects to my work that is dehumanizing, right? If I have to assess a case based on somebody’s medical prognosis, for example, that’s just… That’s on some level dehumanizing.
It’s not perfect, it’s not perfect work or perfectly anti-oppressive work, right? There’s oppression and elitism and all of that built into it.
RRD: How has the pandemic impacted your work? Has it made you think about your clients or adult housing differently? Or the whole system?
JB: Yeah. I mean, what people ultimately need — they need money and they need control over their lives and their money. In a system that doesn’t let them do either of that right?
My clients have been medicalized to be pawns in a system that profits off people…
My clients have been medicalized to be pawns in a system that profits off people, but doesn’t get them what they need, especially in these institutional settings. That are just set up to maximize profits and to not try and provide sort of individual services to people.
RRD: Is there a scale of good to bad or is it basically all bad?
JB: Well, there is a scale of good to bad. There are nonprofit institutions, nonprofit adult homes. It’s been a while since I’ve been there, but I can say a couple of good things about them. As an institution, they haven’t actively thwarted my organization’s efforts to de-institutionalize people. So they’re not opposed to the concept of de-institutionalization. And there are some ways, very basic ways that they do right by their residents.
4% of that class that we know of have already died in the past two months [because of COVID]
For example, when COVID hit, they put all their residents in a Holiday Inn with their own rooms so that they could be appropriately quarantined from each other. That’s heroic in the world of adult homes where a lot of people are dying.
The class that I represent, 4% of that class that we know of have already died in the past two months. And I think that’s a huge underestimate.
RRD: What are the alternatives for your clients?
JB: The alternative to these institutions is housing in a community, which, in our system, is done by nonprofits who are staffed by underpaid, overworked, mostly Black and Brown people, and have a huge amount of turnover.
But you can live in your own apartment or at least an apartment with a roommate where you get your own room and you buy your own groceries, you cook for yourself. Maybe you have control of your money if you have kind of a track record of doing that.
But it doesn’t mean that those folks get their choice of amazing apartments. And a lot of people complain that they’re placed in the most dangerous neighborhoods, far away from public transit, far away from the services that they might need.
So there is, in the existing system, a better way for people to live.
My take away from my work is that we should not be institutionalizing people.
In terms of institutions, my take away from my work is that we should not be institutionalizing people. Unless you’re going to a hospital for a set period of time to get better or to a rehab facility to get really intense, physical therapy, nobody should be living in an institution. It’s not good for anybody.
And it’s like the COVID pandemic has demonstrated that pretty resolutely.
We knew it was coming and I talked to people in the New York State Department of Health that are privy to the same information that I have.
It’s really hard for me to hear people talking about Andrew Cuomo as an example of a great leader. I think that makes no sense.
It’s really hard for me to hear people talking about Andrew Cuomo as an example of a great leader. I think that makes no sense. He is responsible for the budgetary provision that basically exempts nursing homes from any liability. Have you heard about that? There is a New York Times article — but I don’t know if that’s something that’s been reported on with much focus beyond that.
But if it wasn’t gonna be a problem, why did you insert that into a budget provision?
RRD: How did you get into this work? Does it connect to things you cared about personally when you were younger? Was it the reason you went to law school?
JB: [laughter] In terms of my career, I just sort of fell into it.
Before law school, I moved to Seattle after college, at the height of the first dot-com boom in the ’90s. I got a job at the front desk of a low-income housing developer. I was at the front desk and people were coming in looking for affordable housing and largely people who are on the street in Seattle.
That was the first time I was interacting with people who are homeless and interacting with people with mental health disabilities. It got me interested in mental health. Just kind of thinking about it. Then I moved to another nonprofit that did policy work. Four years later I was an interim executive director of the nonprofit.
You could say that the start of my career was the direct benefit of a good economy and lots of opportunity for advancement in the nonprofit world. That second job is where I got to know a bunch of lawyers, especially people that I’d meet at this annual conference around affordable housing issues.
We’d all go to DC and talk about the issues and talk about what was going on in all the states. And lobbying our congress people for changes, increasing the HUD budget, things like that.
That’s where I met these really cool lawyers who… I guess what I realized was I wanted to do legal work more than policy work, because I wanted to have clients that I was accountable to. That’s kind of what excited me about being a lawyer, compared to policy work.
RRD: Is it because of the relationship and the satisfaction of helping an individual? Or the timescale that change happens on?
JB: Well, the timescale is always disappointing [chuckle] regardless of what avenue of advocacy.
[In] legal work you can put people in a position to tell their own stories.
But I think it was more the connection to real people. I enjoy storytelling about clients, or I guess even better, in legal work you can put people in a position to tell their own stories, whether that’s by testimony or drafting good pleadings that reflect people’s stories accurately, and even getting them to talk to a reporter, in some rare instances.
I think that’s what I was craving. I ended up in New York because I went to law school at CUNY Law.
RRD: COVID has laid bare a bunch of systematic issues in the country and city and it feels like your work, your clients and those institutions, is very much one of those broken systems.
If people wanted to be more engaged what should they do?
JB: It’s really hard because the system is so huge. I guess to give the most simple answer, I think that a focus on electoral politics to the exclusion of the value of connecting with people can be a challenge.
We need to get beyond that sort of dehumanizing power dynamic that we were talking about earlier.
RDD: Are there organizations to support or people to follow?
JB: I really think organizing in masses is what will make a difference. I guess if I were to point to an organization that I really admire, Vocal New York.
The thing is, I think a lot of the most important work is community-based, unpaid work, but yeah, Vocal, I think is a good example of an established organization that is focused on people. They’re focused on formerly incarcerated people and housing and they’re kind of one of the organizations leading the charge on canceling the rents and that sort of thing. That’s an example of the type of organization that I admire and support.
But there are things that I could be doing more off the clock, than I do. So I’m no exception.
RRD: I’d love to hear your experience organizing your work place. What was it like to be a leader of your union in that process?
JB: So to clarify, I was a member of our bargaining team for our 2015 union contract campaign, so that meant being part of the four-person team, it was negotiating the contract with our management for, at the time, a shop of 60 or 70 people, mostly attorneys but also our administrative staff and a few paralegals.
We spent the better part of the year organizing our shop, having one-on-one and group conversations, developing our demands, and then actually sitting down at the bargaining table, negotiating, engaging in actions.
That includes things like “Everybody wears their shirts on this day,” posting flyers on doors, marching into the executive director’s office and handing her a letter demanding some kind of change or something, boycotting our holiday party that year, [laughter] having our own holiday party, that was pretty rad.
RRD: Was it an antagonistic relationship with management or…
JB: Yes. It still is. It’s kind of never not been. The union management relationship in my organization has never not been antagonistic, ever since I’ve been there.
People are kind of blown away when they’re like, “Wait, you work for a non-profit and you have a shared mission, and everybody’s working in this organization that is trying to combat poverty and these systemic issues, but then you can’t get along with management. Why is there that antagonistic relationship?”
So we wrote a law review article about it to talk about the political economic roots of that.
RRD: Can you explain what the issue is a bit more?
JB: So we’re a huge workforce of people who are preventing evictions, right? And we’re funded by de Blasio’s city government, which has a stain on its record because homelessness has only increased. And so we’re like one of the non-profit contractors that is contracted to prevent further evictions and further homelessness in the city.
We are trying to do that but we’re funded to do that by an administration that’s not providing enough affordable housing, that’s not doing enough, and that has relationships on the other side that is making gentrification in New York City worse and worse, right?
RRD: But how does that translate to your workplace labor issues?
JB: There are a lot of ways that City and State government contract out the services that government used to provide. And that’s part of Social Services cuts going back to the ’70s and ’80s, right?
[We’re] part of a non-profit that’s competing for contracts to do that work, and in a way it’s a race to the bottom.
So my organization actually used to be a Social Services organization, but everything but the legal arm by the ’80s was gone because of Social Services cuts. We actually used to have organizers on staff that help organize rent strikes, for example.
Basically, we’re part of a non-profit that’s competing for contracts to do that work, and in a way it’s a race to the bottom. In those contracts, our employers are trying to promise more with less, you know?
So the natural next step is they’re gonna try and negotiate to pay us less to do that, and over-promise deliverables and then try to under-pay people doing the work. So there is a bottom line even in a non-profit.
RRD: Is the core of the issue negotiating against pay cuts versus asking for pay raises or other issues?
JB: Right. This was in the wake of the financial crisis, so that’s when I came into this work, in 2008. So I took a job and then immediately thought like, “Oh, maybe I’ll get laid off after the financial crisis.” That didn’t happen, we didn’t get great pay raises, and the excuse being the financial crisis and not that our organization was on shaky ground.
Unionizing is how we’ve been able to counter that and increase our pay and keep most of our benefits.
The budget projections are always [chuckle] way different than the reality on the ground, and that is used to negotiate against us in terms of our pay and benefits. And it’s kind of part of this larger systemic issue where the non-profits are competing for these contracts and there’s sort of a race to the bottom in terms of the pay and benefits of the workers doing the work.
Unionizing is how we’ve been able to counter that and increase our pay and keep most of our benefits. I mean, there are always healthcare cuts. There are always healthcare cuts.
We organized a strike that lasted three and a half weeks. Most of the actions that we did, people were on board. And in terms of the strike vote, I think it was fewer than five people who voted not to strike. It was over 90% or more of our shop voted to strike, and nobody crossed the picket line.
As a result of that we got pay equity for our administrative staff. The four women of color working at the front desk answering phones and, you know, the first people to see our clients, their pay raises were a fraction of like the attorney’s pay increases. So we got them towards greater pay equity on each of their salary steps. We got paid parental leave for the first time. We got an increase in our retirement contributions from the organization. So it was really successful.
Being a lawyer, organizing with your own co-workers and organizing for yourselves to do something to benefit yourself as opposed to a client, was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
JB: It was awesome. It was a great experience.