Tzedek DC

"It's very, very expensive to be poor"

Tzedek DC | June 2024

Abdallah was criminally exploited by a love interest. Evelyn was robbed blind by a pothole and city bureaucracy. Manuel was set back by the burial costs from his mother’s funeral while Rosa gave all she had to a scammer threatening her granddaughter’s life back home. Megan was gutted by a nursing home greedy for her social security check and Shawn lost his home to parking tickets. Debt, it turns out, is far more dimensional than basic bad decisions.

The $100 Trap

In 2015 Shawn Cheatham packed everything he owned into his car and hit the road, heading to Washington, DC with a dream of opening a plumbing business. On arrival he surveyed the shelters for a temporary sleeping spot but seeing only violence, filth, and sickness, chose to make a home of his car instead. A veteran and experienced tradesman, Shawn quickly landed a job as a plumber for a company in Rockville, a short way outside of town. “I had this little thing where I would sleep in the car, wake up in the morning, go to a gas station, wash up, get everything cleaned up, go to work, feed myself off of the money that I made,” he says.

A year later, now with savings and a home address, Shawn went to the DMV to renew his license. It was then he learned his car had been accruing tickets and compounding late fees, leaving him $3,000 in debt. Soon the city booted, towed, and totaled his car—taking his tools and work transportation as they did. Further, DC’s Clean Hands Act—targeting anyone with more than $100 in city dues (whether taxes or tickets)—meant an automatic suspension of his license with no renewal options and the inability to maintain a business license or occupational certificate to keep him working. “So that killed my job, my housing…that killed everything right there,” he says. “I was maintaining living in my car, but once they did that, they took everything from me.”

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Sarah O'Malley

Now Shawn is no stranger to hard work. Fresh out of high school in 1981, he entered the Air Force as a jet engine mechanic and followed in the steps of his grandfather as he developed a specialization in plumbing while stationed at the Davis-Monthan base near Tucson. “As a plumber, I went in missile silos because to shoot off a missile you have to have water so that it doesn't melt everything around you. So, I had to take care of that…man…” he shakes his head remembering. “It was an adventure. I loved it.”

Even with the desert and the rattlesnakes he would've stayed, but the loss of his brother and consequent need to care for his mother called him back to the east coast. After some time in New Jersey and Charlottesville, “I decided that I'm coming to DC with nothing. I just had a car, tools, and the belief I can make it.” But the tickets were a serious setback. That is until one day Shawn noticed a flyer pinned to the wall at the Veteran’s Hospital advertising ‘free help for people with legal problems resulting from debt.’ He called the number and met Josh.

Having retired from his illustrious career as a senior advisor and trial attorney with the Department of Justice, Josh Levin is a volunteer staff attorney with Tzedek DC, playing a major role in the nonprofit’s legislative and policy work, particularly focused on DC’s Clean Hands Act. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Don't call me Mr.—we are the same age,’” says Shawn. “And I was like, that's great, that was respect. He didn't come from a position of authority; he came from a position of caring. Sometimes you can get with a lawyer who is so high on themselves that they miss the point that we are human. With Tzedek DC, they really care about the person totally.”

That was Shawn’s experience of Tzedek DC since day one. Not only did Josh work with Shawn to get his license renewed and restore his good standing with the city—he led a robust coalition to affect policy changes that have prevented hundreds, if not thousands of similar stories from occurring. This attentiveness and capacity to care for both the systemic and deeply personal issues arising from debt is a Tzedek DC signature. And everyone says so.

“I am one of them guys that really keep pushing,” says Shawn, “but I just didn't know what buttons to push. Tzedek DC came in and they straightened everything out. And now, thank God, I have just opened up my business, have an apartment, and now that I can be legit, I truly believe I'm getting ready to do something great.”

The Nature of Debt

“Conventional wisdom says that people who have debt are deadbeats,” says Janet Lowenthal. “They got into this with their eyes open; they overspent. Sometimes that is the case, but for people on the bottom—more often than not—it's not the case. It's very, very expensive to be poor.”

Janet has been volunteering with Tzedek DC since the beginning, nearly eight years ago. Retired and recently widowed, she found herself eager for a rigorous, meaningful challenge alongside people she liked and respected. Having spent much of her consulting career in Latin America, one of Janet’s first recommendations was that Tzedek DC begin to engage the Latino population in Washington, DC. This side of their work became known as ‘No Debts, No Doubts,’ or 'Sin Deudas, Sin Dudas,' and has steadily grown alongside increasing demand.

Demand, of course, is the result of increasingly sophisticated predatory schemes. One particularly familiar to Latino communities comes through ‘credit repair agencies’ and goes something like this: Imagine you have several open credit cards. You're paying constantly but you find it irritating to keep up with them all. A credit repair agency offers to consolidate all your bills if you pay them one sum per month. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“A lot of people fall for that,” says Janet. “You wind up paying them for a service that really you could do yourself. They take a huge bite and you're paying forever. And I've seen quite a bit of this in the Latino community.”

In fact, this was one of the first cases Tzedek DC took on, Janet recalls. A woman had come to recognize that while she'd been paying and paying the credit repair agency she had seen advertised on TV, she was still on the hook for a seemingly intractable debt. When she tried to call the company to complain, she discovered the phone had been disconnected. “So, she called us,” Janet says. “She had wound up paying more to the credit repair company than the total amount of the original debt. To make a long story short, we got her whole thing canceled. I think we got a certain amount returned and we just ended the whole problem for her.”

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Stephen Jeter

As referrals spread and the list of client intakes grew, so did Tzedek DC’s small team. In 2019, after a memorable soup lunch with Janet and Ariel, Naomi Ayala began leading education workshops and outreach for the Latino community. A lifelong activist by passion and teacher by profession, Naomi champions access to information as a matter of justice and human rights. Naomi’s earliest and most adamant recommendation was that Tzedek DC participate in food distribution lines. There are several throughout the city—Naomi volunteers at five of them.

“This is close to my heart,” she says. “The moment you talk about hitting your budget at the level of food, things are not right. Things aren't always going to be okay.” People in the community recognize her as the woman who helps with the boxes—unloading, loading, packing, and cleaning up. She’s a trusted presence, a familiar face. The one people know to go to if they receive a $4,000 Pepco bill out of the blue one month or their identity gets stolen, or they get a scary scam message. She’s the one that organizes drop-in clinics at local libraries, making Tzedek DC’s free attorneys accessible to people with urgent questions and burning worries.

“Information is help. Information is access to opportunities,” she says. “Without it, you don't find out where the food is. You don't know who can help you if you have a problem. Information is that critical.” And the reality is, especially for recent immigrants, many don’t have access to information “unless somebody goes out of their way to give it to them; knows where they are and tries to help them,” says Naomi.

“And that's why we're so close with Naomi, because we talk the same language. She understands being immersed in the community and meeting people where they are,” says Dr. Maria McPhail, President and CEO of Vida Senior Centers. “That is the only way to deliver the message properly. You need to go there, you need to live there, you need to dance with them.”

Vida is the oldest nonprofit organization serving Hispanic and low-income seniors in the Washington, DC area. For more than half a century it has organized care for some of the city’s most isolated and vulnerable residents, many of whom are widows or caregivers living on less than 200% of the federal poverty line ($15,060 for an individual in 2024). In addition to health promotion, medication management, nutrition education, mental health support, counseling, and social and recreation activities, partners like Tzedek DC provide access to financial empowerment and legal services—all in Spanish.

Naomi made the connection, leading seminars and workshops to educate eager-to-learn, ready-to-Zumba septa- and octogenarians. Objectively one of the most targeted and technologically vulnerable groups, Dr. Maria says Vida’s seniors are most in need of help in one area: fraud prevention.

“It's disgusting to see how many seniors are being victims of fraud,” says Dr. Maria. “It is horrible—phone calls for scams telling them that there was a car accident with their grandchildren. They have their name, age, place, address, they have everything. And these people with no sense of humanity are telling them, ‘You need to go and deposit $5,000 now or your relative will die.’ So, my fight is I need to remind the seniors never fall for that. We educate them… but a lot of seniors have given away the only money they have.”

“I have seniors that received 300 phone calls a week telling them, One of your family members is crossing the Mexico border... And they have the voice now prerecorded—it is the voice of the relative telling them that they are in danger… This has become scary for them.”

Dr. Maria McPhail, President and CEO, Vida Senior Centers

“If I could blast one thing far and wide,” says Janet, “it would be, don't assume that just because somebody owes debt it's because they're lazy or irresponsible or selfish. That's not the case.”

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Sarah O'Malley

Love and Potholes

Evelyn Parham was returning home after running errands for her senior mother when a pothole on Benning Road Bridge robbed her blind. “When I hit it, I went up in the air and slammed back down…broke the whole back wheel,” she says. Stuck on the bridge, she called insurance which sent a tow to take her home. That was December 2017, the start of a mess of events that’ve since left Evelyn carless and credit wrecked.

Evelyn got the damage appraised and filed a report with the District Department of Transportation, requesting help covering the costs. Getting nowhere, she reached out to her local council member and the DC mayor’s office and stretched her fixed income to afford other transportation. The car, meanwhile, sat on the street outside her house while her claim was under review. Even with a ‘do not ticket, do not tow’ notice registered to her license plate, her car was towed anyway.

DC Police said it wasn’t them and sent her to Blue Plains, the infamous impound lot used by the city’s Department of Public Works. Blue Plains confirmed her car was there and that they “don’t use the same system” so wouldn’t know if there was a ‘do not tow’ notice registered. She got no further explanation, rather they sold her car at auction.

Worse, her tags were somehow recirculated and racked up nearly $800 in tickets in Maryland despite her not being in possession of the vehicle. The outstanding tickets meant she couldn’t renew her license, and eventually they hit her credit. Navigating the paperwork, the false promises, the crossed wires became Evelyn’s part-time job. All she needed was help fixing tire damages from a pothole. This simple thing complicated her life enormously. But Evelyn is not the only one. For those that aren’t familiar with the systems and bureaucracy, it can be crushing.

“They [Tzedek DC] walked me through the paperwork and through the court systems and spoke on my behalf at the council member boards and everything,” says Evelyn. “I wouldn’t think of anybody else in the world I would want to be by my side.”

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Erica Baker

Abdallah said the exact same thing. He found Tzedek DC through a rather desperate Google search after a woman he’d become romantically involved with swindled him out of $380,000. “Quite frankly, I'd never seen anybody so good at what they did than this person,” admits Abdallah. “I mean, this sounds almost wrong to compliment somebody on doing a criminal job, but point is, it was extremely subtle.”

After a decade teaching high school math and working in school administration, Abdallah had diligently saved enough to buy a house for himself and his two boys. But when messaging with his new romantic interest moved from Hinge to WhatsApp, the conversation matured from general interests and life goals to investment strategies. That’s when things took a turn for the worse. She touted an investment platform she was using to make money in crypto, sending screenshots, links to accounts, contact information for customer service representatives—the whole bit. “It seemed pretty legit,” says Abdallah, “So I made an account, loaded some funds, invested the money, made some gains, withdrew the money…that’s what built my trust in the platform.”

Then he incrementally loaded a lot more money—his entire life savings. And it all disappeared. Vanished. Like it never happened. But it did, and he needed someone to listen, take it seriously, and guide him through filing reports with multiple agencies, recounting the details, collecting transaction records—preparing for a trial, essentially, in hopes there might be one someday.

“During that time, I started really questioning a lot of people and a lot of things and just feeling fear of being scammed again and again and again. That's a real feeling, and that's not in a good state of mind to be in,” says Abdallah. What’s helped has been his weekly calls with the Tzedek DC team, namely Courtney Wilkes and Maritza Cortez, who have helped him navigate the fraud reporting protocols and take steps to build back his credit after it tanked to 540 in the aftermath.

“If there's anything that I learned through this whole process is that it ain't easy out there,” says Abdallah. “It ain't easy at all. And to find support when you can find it as a treasure, it's something to not take for granted.”

Asked what he wishes he had done differently, Abdallah says, “I should have spoken to other friends, family, coworkers about what they thought about the situation. I should have spoken up and got the feedback of other people because other people would have told me that this was a scam. That was a big mistake.” A word to the wise.

Medical Debt and the Wealth Gap

Jennifer Holloway was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer during her senior year of college. Though her oncology appointments over the years required travel between Texas, Missouri, California, and Massachusetts, her insurance covered airfare, accommodation, and all medical expenses. “I walked away with no medical debt, and I know so many people don’t,” she says. With a dental bill for routine care on the desk as I type this, I must admit I’ve never heard of insurance working like that. Having finished university, a master’s degree in social work, and then a law degree, Jennifer now leads Tzedek DC’s medical debt project.

In addition to helping people understand their medical bills, insurance benefits, or the financial assistance they might qualify for, Jennifer represents clients being sued over medical debt. And here I learn a nasty truth: “Most of the patients I’ve had who have been sued have been nursing home patients,” says Jennifer.

How is that possible? Imagine your elderly parent stays in a nursing home for rehabilitative care after an injury. Medicare, Jennifer says, only covers the first 100 days and there’s a $204 per day co-pay as well. And if mom or dad have Medicaid then they are required to pay their social security income to the nursing home (all but $100).

The problem is that this was only meant to be a temporary stay so the mortgage or rent back home still needs to be paid, the utilities kept up, etc. “These folks know they’re going home and so they know they’ll need the money afterwards, so they haven’t paid those bills,” says Jennifer. But once the nursing home sends the account to a debt collector, things tend to get very scary for those on a fixed income. The good news, Jennifer says, is that if your only income is social security, the nursing home or debt collector can’t take any of that money from you. But it might require a court process for which you’ll want legal counsel.

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Sarah O'Malley

Another common situation is medical credit cards, which people tend to open when confronted with an unexpected medical expense. These cards have extremely high rates of deferred interest that kicks in 6- or 12-months after you've had the card. “If you don't pay that balance off in full by then, it's likely you're going to get hit with retroactive interest on all that—often as high as 25-40%,” explains Jennifer.

Negotiating a settlement is typically the best approach in these scenarios, but again, this is not something most people would know how to do for themselves. Also, once this debt is on a credit card, it puts your credit score at risk, which for most of working America impacts housing applications and job prospects. The tightrope labyrinth is becoming visible.

“The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is trying to ban all medical debts from credit reports, which we're really supportive of,” says Jennifer. “Other states have done it, like Colorado and New York, so we're pushing DC to ban all medical debt on credit reports as one of our policy pushes long-term.”

Now you start to see how the three dimensions of Tzedek DC’s work are mutually reinforcing: direct legal services, policy work and community outreach. “I think that's the thing that’s most special about us as an organization,” says Sarah, “our policy work is really informed by our direct legal services work.”

For example, in 2023 Tzedek DC led advocacy with the mayor's office around the purchase and cancellation of medical debt. As a result of months of hard work, the mayor announced a grant for $900,000 to purchase and cancel about $80 million in medical debt for DC residents. “Once the mayor's staff presented to her, she was so interested and had some surplus funding that she just did it as a grant with leftover funding instead of through the budget process,” says Sarah. And DC residents will be tens of millions of dollars freer.

Tzedek DC does this work through a racial justice lens for the simple fact that the wealth gap tracks racial lines in DC (and across America). “The numbers should shock us all,” says Ariel. “Every single day there's an 8,100% gap between the statistically typical white DC resident or black neighbor. That's a fundamentally unjust system and outcome.”

“And the numbers for Latino families are also pretty stark,” says Sarah.Understanding that this is, of course, a gap created by systemic racism—historic and current—we view our work as trying to close the wealth gap and undo some of those harms that have been created along the way.”

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Stephen Jeter

“Some things you can’t fake”

Stephen Jefferson grew up in DC—east of the river—and easily rattles off the addresses of every school he attended. He remembers Wards 7 and 8 back when they had two full-service hospitals and grocery stores stocked with fresh produce. “We had Giant and Safeway. I don't know what happened between the seventies and early eighties, but things just started to disappear,” he says. Financial education and life skills curriculum in the classroom was one of those things.

Case in point, Stephen graduated high school knowing how to write a resume, write a check and make sense of a paycheck, keep a budget, open a checking and savings account. “That was in ’84,” he says. “Well, my son and daughter both graduated out of DC public schools—my son most recently in 2021—and they didn't have that. We created a generation of young folks that don't understand finances.”

Before the pandemic turned his life upside down, Stephen was a certified tobacco treatment specialist, helping people quit smoking and deal with stress. Now, he is Tzedek DC's Community Outreach Coordinator, helping to fill in the financial knowledge gaps for the next generation. Every Thursday Monday Tzedek DC gathers a group of young adults ages 18-25 to empower them with critical information like the difference between a credit and debit card, how investing works, and the basics of lending.

“It’s a huge educational gap versus a wealth gap,” says Stephen, “because when you don't educate, you have the wealthy and the broke. But if you can educate the broke, then the scale starts to balance itself out. You'll be surprised how things will change.”

On this particular afternoon, I join 20 young adults in a large conference room at Industrial Bank on Georgia Avenue NW. The topic is credit, how a credit score is both built and ruined. With a warmth you can’t fake, Stephen welcomes every person, shakes every hand, and honors every question. By the end of the session attendees are inquiring about secure credit cards, how to access their free credit report, and how much they should save out of each paycheck. Their curiosity has been underserved until now, that much is clear.

“So, this is an opportunity to repair that,” says Ariel. “I think the biggest near-term horizon push that we have is this focus on young people in the community education context. That's what ultimately is going to reduce the violence among youth in our city—having a pathway that doesn't involve violence towards hope and a job and financial stability.”

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Stephen Jeter

I find myself returning to something Shawn said at the beginning of our conversation: “With Tzedek DC, they really care about the person totally.” The integrity and excellence of Tzedek DC’s work and people is perhaps the most consistent refrain from clients and volunteers to staff and partners. The legal help for problems arising from debt would be much more easily forgotten or minimized if it weren’t also the embodiment of a genuine, self-giving, life-changing care.

“There are some things you just can't fake,” says Janet, “like really caring about the fate of your client, really caring what's going to happen to that person and that person's family, and what will happen if we lose the case, or what will happen if we can't help them address the problem. You can't fake your degree of concern and caring and rock-bottom respect for other people.” That, I’ve heard over and over, is the heart of the team, the core of the work, and the foundation upon which justice is served.

As Shawn tells me about his next dream—to get an RV and visit Yellowstone National Park—I think of all the life made livable by this niche nonprofit with their blue clipboards, standing in the back. “This is what it is all about,” says Shawn, “being able to be self-sufficient, support myself, and do some of the things that I really like to do. Can't do that with no money.”

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Editor's Note

Reading this story, one feels the tightening knot of poverty, the restriction of exploitation and injustice. It's sobering to learn the totality and speed in which a life can be dismantled, the mired weight of debt and the predatory practices and poor policies that allow for it. It's here, deep in the trenches, that we find Tzedek DC.

The Hebrew word Tzedek is commonly translated as "justice" or "to act on someone's behalf." Tzedek DC embodies those ideals, demanding individual justice on behalf of their clients, while advocating for justice for all. Tzedek DC is an outstretched hand in the dark, offering a way out when all seems lost. We are exceedingly grateful for their work.

Special thanks to Katie Hodges, whose collages gave a sense of the physical weight of debt—the torn envelopes, unpaid tickets, collection notices that pile up. And to our photographers, Steve, Erica and Sarah, who gifted their unique perspectives of DC—the thrumming city beyond the manicured monuments—and to Kate, who deftly wove together stories that needed to be told, shining a light on justice.

AM Headshot Eric Baker

Avery Marks

Features Editor

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