COVID HELP: Free Online Assistance for People with Pandemic-Related Problems in Illinois
March 30, 2021
A year into a global pandemic that has changed everyone´s lives, we have faced both a health crisis and an economic one. While we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the health crisis, the economic impacts will continue as the country opens back up and some relief efforts come to an end. For thousands of Illinois families, “back to normal” will mean serious legal consequences stemming from these economic problems: evictions, debt-collection lawsuits, and other consequences of the myriad disruptions caused by the pandemic. In the housing realm alone, as many as 1.7 million people in Illinois could face eviction once federal and state moratoria expire, potentially flooding legal aid offices and courts alike with demand that far exceeds our collective capacity to help.
The legal aid community across the state recognized this looming problem and came together to build a comprehensive solution: COVID HELP.
What is COVID HELP?
COVID HELP (Housing and Economic Loss Prevention) is an award-winning statewide initiative providing no-cost legal guidance to Illinoisans experiencing common legal problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois residents can access free legal information and assistance 24/7 at covidhelpillinois.org.
When information is quickly changing, we know it is important to have the most up-to-date information from trusted sources. At COVID HELP, people are supported by a team of virtual legal assistants created by a group of lawyer experts at not-for-profit legal aid groups. Each virtual assistant addresses common pandemic-related issues facing Illinoisans:
- Personal debt and bankruptcy
- Housing (landlord/tenant, eviction and foreclosure)
- Employment and unemployment
- Wills, estates, and guardianship
COVID HELP was created by lawyers from CARPLS Legal Aid, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, The Chicago Bar Foundation, the Westside Justice Center, Illinois Legal Aid Online, and many other organizations providing free legal services around the state. The service is managed and maintained by attorneys at CARPLS Legal Aid.
Why refer people to COVID HELP?
As courts reopen and moratoria expire, one way you can assist people navigating the next phase of this pandemic is by referring them to COVID HELP. Visitors to COVID HELP get free, automated, location-specific, lawyer-backed support for their legal problems 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please share this resource with your local community as well!
Acting now instead of down the road can make a huge difference for people, and sending people to COVID HELP allows you to help get their questions addressed without needing to know all of the answers in a rapidly changing environment.
During the first 16 weeks it has been live, around 3,000 people have started a conversation with COVID HELP. Three out of four visitors to the site have received legal information, and nearly half of all visitors were referred to a legal aid attorney or free social service resource. Both the number and engagement level of users have steadily increased over the past month. Users have come to COVID HELP from 68 different counties across the state.
The American Bar Association recently awarded COVID HELP the 2021 Louis M. Brown Select Award for Legal Access, an award honoring those who advance the mission of improving access to legal services for those of moderate incomes in ways that are “remarkable and replicable.”
How can you refer people to COVID HELP?
We have put together a toolkit where you will be able to access a one-pager you can share on your court or clerk website and in your newsletters. You can also print the one-pager to create a sign to hang in your local courthouse, law library, or self-help center.
The toolkit also contains social media samples, complete with social media graphics and additional resources you can use to spread the word.
You can add a link to covidhelpillinois.org on your website so people know it is available as a resource. We can even help you add a widget to your site to allow people to access COVID HELP without leaving your page and without requiring you to maintain anything. Two sites that have already done this are the Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Justice and the Westside Justice Center.
Finally, one of the best ways you can promote COVID HELP is by adding it to any referral lists or resources you already provide to people in need.
If you have any questions about COVID HELP or want to talk about different options for making sure people have access to this free resource, please contact the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois’ counsel for strategic initiatives Hanna Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org, or CARPLS Legal Aid’s communications and marketing manager Nicole Nesmith at email@example.com.