Meet Alan Mills, Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center
The Uptown People’s Law Center is a full-service community based legal clinic that works to improve people’s quality of life through sound, community-oriented lawyering and by leveraging the law to effect social change.
The IEJF funds the Center’s work protecting tenant rights and helping disabled people access public benefits. But you’re also well known for your work protecting prisoner rights. How are all these issues interconnected?
Uptown was and still is one of the most diverse communities in the U.S. And the Uptown People’s Law Center is unusual in that was not founded by lawyers. Rather, it was founded by people from the Uptown community—former coal miners fighting for black lung benefits and tenants fighting to keep their homes—who had set aside their many differences and banded together as a community organization to fight to maintain a place in their neighborhood. They recruited lawyers to assist them in their fight, and from that, UPLC was founded.
UPLC first started representing people in prison because they were from the Uptown community—the brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers of people we represented in housing, Social Security, and a variety of other issues.
On a more direct level, poor people often have problems which overlap. For example, about 50% of the prison population has a mental illness; disabled people are vastly overrepresented among prisoners. The mental health and medical care they receive in prison is terrible (the subject of two of our class action cases), so when they get out, many are unable to work. We are able to represent them in their claims for disability benefits. Similarly, evictions for criminal activity are very common. So again, there is overlap.
Uptown People’s Law Center has been called a true grassroots organization. What does this mean to you and how does it help you advance your mission?
Our close connection to the Uptown community is both geographic, as we have always been located in the center of Uptown, as well as programmatic, because we have always focused on the legal needs of the people in this neighborhood. This means that when a tenant comes in with an eviction case, we are very likely to have previously represented other tenants in the same building, and thus know the landlord, and be familiar with the building’s issues. It also means that many of the landlords know us. This allows us to resolve some cases without litigation at all, and in litigated cases, gives us a huge tactical advantage—we usually know a lot more about what is going on in a building than the landlord’s lawyer does. Finally, it means that we are connected to a web of other services that may provide better solutions to a client’s needs than a purely legal approach.
This is one of the reasons we have spent time over the last year developing a medical-legal partnership with Heartland Alliance Health—which provides health care to many homeless residents in our community. This partnership allows both organizations to better serve the community.
Why is the IEJF so important to the Uptown People’s Law Center?
IEJF’s funding is the keystone to our eviction defense work. Since most of our eviction defense involves subsidized housing, the people we represent are both very poor, and have their housing subsidies at stake. IEJF’s grants to UPLC over the decades have been vital to our ability to carry out this work, and has saved countless people from homelessness.
What’s the number one thing you want legislators and policymakers to know about the people served by the Uptown People’s Law Center?
The people served by UPLC are deeply impacted by poverty and trauma. Over half the people in prison have a mental illness, most have been subjected to traumas, often dating from childhood, which are unimaginable to most people. They emerge from prison worse than ever, as incarceration is one of the most violent, traumatizing things that can happen to a person.
Eviction is not merely a result, but also a cause of poverty. It is also traumatizing– children who are forced from their communities often fall behind in school. Stakes are even higher for those in subsidized housing: if people are evicted from such, they lose not only their home, but their subsidy. The results can be devastating, including the forced breakup of the family, with children parceled out to relatives.
The people UPLC represents seeking Social Security disability payments often have to wait a year or more to get benefits after they are no longer able to work, plunging them deeply into debt, or into homelessness. Even those who get benefits only receive $750 a month—not enough to rent a studio apartment in almost all of Chicago.
While UPLC cannot solve all of these problems, our intervention reduces their impact on individuals, and in the case of our prison class action lawsuits, can reduce the harm inflicted on thousands.
Winter in Chicago usually means a lot of movies, books and TV shows to binge. Any personal favorites you would recommend?
Reading is one of the main ways I use to relieve the pressure of the often stressful work we do. My favorite author is Andrew Vachss, who writes dark crime novels, each of which in some way involve abused children. While today he is a lawyer representing abused children in New York City, decades ago Vachss ran a small community organization in Uptown, and one of his early books is set here. Uptown’s culture of a community willing to put aside its differences and fight for itself comes through in everything he writes.