Who they gonna call?

Funds for the California Senior Legal Hotline disappear

Reach the California Senior Legal Hotline at (916) 551-2140, (800) 222-1753 or online at www.seniorlegalhotline.org.

Identity theft and fraud against California’s eldest residents are on the rise. Meanwhile, money to help seniors dwindles, including federal funds for a local program that provides legal-aid volunteers.

In the latest setback, a congressional appropriation for California’s Senior Legal Hotline recently expired. Since, the nonprofit has been forced to make cuts in services. SLH, which provides free, over-the-telephone advice to those older than 60, has now turned to other sources for funding, in addition to cutting staff.

“It’s a piecemeal approach,” says David Mandel, director of the Senior Legal Hotline. “But it’s what we have to do.”

As part of the cutbacks, SLH has increased reliance on a patchwork of grants, which restrict the type of services it can provide. At one time a statewide resource for free legal counsel to seniors, the nonprofit is now limited in what it can discuss with those who call for advice.

Noncounty residents can receive help on issues varying from pensions and foreclosures to reverse mortgages and food stamps. But Sacramento County seniors can get help with those topics and also health care, elderly services, debt, custody and other issues.

“When we receive calls from outside Sacramento County that we can’t address, we usually refer the caller to their local legal-aid provider,” said Rachel Baca, an SLH administrator.

Callers to SLH from throughout the state peaked in 2005, at nearly 10,000, but the number of calls has since gone down while the complexity has gone up, according to Mandel. He speculated that information readily available online has helped people resolve simple questions. The length of time on cases, however, has increased to slightly more than two hours. Mortgage and refinancing issues are particularly hot topics, Mandel told SN&R.

The 2009 appropriation funding was seen as a way to keep SLH’s phone lines humming, particularly by adding staff. Founded in 1991 as a local operation, the center had expanded services offered until 2007. Since, federal and state funding has been largely eliminated, and seven legal help hotlines in other states have closed.

But the Sacramento hotline isn’t hanging up just yet, especially at time when the Sacramento County population is aging rapidly. For instance, Sacramento’s population of 55 to 74 year olds is expected to expand by 50 percent in the next 10 years.

In the meantime, SLH plans to do what it can to help reduce the time and money seniors spend on litigation, particularly for low-income individuals and non-native English speakers. (Legal advocates are available in several languages including Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.) Telephones are also seen as a key way to reach people who may be isolated or immobile.

“The senior population is more vulnerable to abuse and fraud,” Mandel said. “It’s crucial they get basic help and services.”