Jill Martin Diaz (Rudge), 2018-2020 Poverty Law Fellow
Jill Martin Diaz (Rudge) Speaks to the VBF about her Poverty Law Fellowship
What were some highlights of your two-year fellowship?
My fellowship involved two stages. The first stage was pre-COVID when I focused exclusively on housing and mental health justice issues. So many people have their housing affected by their mental health needs. Everything the light touches has an effect.
As a Fellow, you really take a bird’s eye view of your focus area. In my case, I found that stable housing and access to mental healthcare are keys that open up access to everything else a person might need including physical health, schooling, economic participation, safety, community, and other supports and services.
As for the second stage, once COVID hit, I thought I would pivot exclusively to COVID advocacy. What I learned very quickly was that COVID work aligned beautifully with housing/mental health work. The pandemic highlighted pre-existing barriers to accessing justice. What became clear with COVID is that the same people are always being left behind. Those without access to time off from jobs to go to court or who lacked access to reasonable accommodations or translators in proceedings were still getting left behind even when everything went online, because they don’t have access to family care or high speed broadband. These are systems that need to be addressed and changed.
Did anything surprise you during your time as a Fellow?
I was surprised by how all-encompassing mental health issues and housing are. Getting access to reasonable accommodations and the services people need is such a challenge. Without these in place, people face housing insecurity that can often lead to homelessness, which in turn exacerbates their mental health challenges. This inspired me to really think holistically about what services people need.
It’s wraparound care that’s needed—mental healthcare as well as case management, housing navigation, and lay advocacy—not just the one service. All these services need to be in place for people to succeed in their housing.
How do you think Vermont can better support people with mental illness in terms of housing access?
The issue that keeps coming up since COVID is how we keep people safe when they are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. For the first time, during COVID people experiencing homelessness were offered universal emergency housing in hotel rooms and campgrounds around the state. So what happens next, when COVID funding expires? As the state resumes terminations from emergency housing for program violations, what mental health or housing services will be made available to keep people enrolled and to give people with disabilities equal access?
The housing stock in Vermont is unaffordable and some is substandard and unsafe. Vacancy rates are also very low. Folks with patchy or poor rental histories have an even harder time getting housed, especially in small towns or in areas where most affordable rental housing is owned by just a few landlords. Complicating things further are systemic barriers making fair housing rights and obligations difficult to assert and enforce.
Sometimes, we see people with disabilities living in settings that are segregated from the larger community, which creates a greater sense of isolation and runs afoul of the ADA. We need to identify pressure points where we can push to increase housing accessibility. We could look at setting statewide rules about the construction of new bricks and mortar, and increasing funding for reasonable accommodations and modifications in housing for people with mental disabilities. For example, most existing affordable rental housing is situated in dense and noisy buildings, which hasn’t worked well for many of my clients who are triggered by frequent neighbor interactions and neighbor noises. Reasonable sound proofing can really help to mitigate triggers, but most of my clients lack the resources to make soundproofing possible.
Improvements to Vermont’s state Olmstead plan could help us more fully realize pivotal provisions of ADA—namely the rights of people with mental disabilities to live in the most integrated settings appropriate to their needs and wants. We need to progress Vermont’s plan from a strategic one to a working document with meaningful action points with funding attached to really affect change. Vermont may have closed state-run institutions long ago but we continue to see people warehoused in hospital and corrections institutions, or living in restrictive residential care settings away from greater society. We need a new plan to establish universal access to safe housing with coordinated care for people regardless of disability.
What was one key takeaway from your Fellowship?
It’s incredible how people get things done in Vermont. Our COVID response has showcased how Vermonters working at all levels of these systems and in their communities are more than willing to do their part in keeping each other safe. In two years, I was able to both provide direct legal services and do policy advocacy, made easier by Vermont’s signature down-to-earth style. People answer their own phones here! Experts at all levels are always happy to chat, and then recommend three other people I should speak to. It’s been incredible seeing how people here come together to get things done.
And this is more than one key takeaway, but it was also incredible to reach across the programs of Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont to drive my fellowship work. I was so fortunate to be able to draw on the expertise of the VLA/LSV brain trust. It was so valuable to be part of this community and learn from it.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during your time as a Fellow?
I think the biggest challenge was digesting a tremendous volume of ideas and material and then finding the appropriate partners to turn ideas into action. I was fortunate to have such an amazing pool of Fellows to call on for help. We all support each other. I can’t wait to pay it forward with Emily Kenyon, the 2020-2022 Poverty Law Fellow. I’m excited to watch her work unfold!