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Baltimore County library raising money for first-of-its-kind vehicle to bring free legal services to communities

The Foundation for Baltimore County Public Library is seeking $25,000 to meet its fundraising goal for a new Mobile Library Law Center, a customized vehicle that will deploy free legal services to underserved neighborhoods in what organizers say will be the first of its kind for any library system in the United States.

Staffed by a librarian and an attorney from Maryland Legal Aid, the Mobile Library Law Center is intended to serve residents who may face barriers in accessing legal services, including those with disabilities and who are immobile; those who lack access to public transportation or can’t afford legal aid; seniors; veterans; and residents who have been in, or are going through, the criminal justice system.

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Through a partnership with Legal Aid, the library foundation’s goal is to raise $160,000 for the vehicle, which is being manufactured by Matthews Specialty Vehicles, and will be retrofitted with two private meeting rooms, internet access and electronic equipment.

“We knew there was a great need” for the mobile law center when the library began fleshing out the concept two years ago, said Julie Brophy, manager of adult and community engagement for the library system.

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Some library branches already host the Maryland Legal Aid’s Lawyer in the Library program, wherein attorneys, paralegals and law students give free counsel to qualifying individuals on civil legal issues — like debt collection and wage claims, housing and tenants’ rights and veterans benefits — and the program was “really well used” when library branches were fully open to the public before coronavirus, Brophy said.

So was the free wills and estate planning offered to low-income patrons at library branches by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that provides housing services to renters and homeowners.

The goal is to make needed services more accessible to the broader community and extend the library’s reach beyond the walls of its 19 branches, Brophy said.

“Not everybody realizes sometimes if you can get some certain legal things taken care of, how much that can open up for your future,” Brophy said. “And there are these free services out that [the library] can help you with and a lot of these individuals would qualify.”

Maryland Legal Aid had previously explored rolling out its own mobile law unit, but “we are not in the business of owning vehicles and operating and designing them,” said Amy Petkovsek, director of advocacy for training and pro-bono work at Maryland Legal Aid.

The concept of a mobile unit isn’t unique; the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore has a Mobile Job Center, which Maryland Legal Aid attorneys help staff.

The idea is to make attorneys available alongside organizations that are “helping the people who need to be helped,” Petkovsek said.

In Baltimore County, Lawyer in the Library represents “an amazing partnership” with the library, Petkovsek said. In making the resources mobile, she said “Baltimore County [could] set a trend that will really go nationwide.”

Improving underserved residents’ access to resources and programming are among the goals outlined in the library’s 2021-24 strategic plan.

The library already runs a fleet of four bookmobiles, which provide early literacy resources and other library materials to children and families in their own neighborhoods as well as to adults who may not be able to travel to a library branch, like those in senior retirement homes, assisted-living facilities or special needs schools.

The bookmobiles last year connected just under 61,500 people with library materials, according to the library’s 2019 annual report.

Brophy was hoping to roll out the law center this year, but the pandemic upended those plans while exacerbating the need for its services.

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“COVID has brought to stark relief so many of the inequities that we see,” like housing insecurity, Brophy said.

“The Mobile Library Law Center is a way for public libraries … to really try and help build that equity in our community and give everyone a fair shot.”

The law center will offer assistance with expungements, a court-ordered process in which the legal record of an arrest or a criminal conviction is sealed or erased, as well as on housing issues like evictions and foreclosures, social welfare benefits and disability issues, family law and custody matters, and citizenship and immigration concerns, according to the library.

While Maryland Legal Aid has income restrictions for its services — household income must be below 125% of the federal poverty income guidelines — Brophy said the Mobile Library Law Center will serve all residents regardless of income, whether it’s answering a question or facilitating connections with programs for which they would qualify.

The library is still figuring out where the law center will go, and the pandemic has played a role in those decisions, Brophy said.

She hopes to deploy the vehicle to neighborhoods where residents are struggling to pay rent, mortgages and utility bills as early as next March, with guidance from the Baltimore County Health Department.

The Mobile Library Law Center has been supported with $50,000 from the American Bar Endowment; $35,000 from Maryland Legal Services Corp.; $25,000 from Wheels for Change; $20,000 from the PNC Foundation; and $5,000 from the Maryland Bar Foundation.

Individuals who would like to donate can contact Julie Saxenmeyer at the Foundation for Baltimore County Public Library by calling 410-887-3282 or emailing jsaxenmeyer@bcpl.net.

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