For some Marion County residents who lived in dirt, filth and overwhelming clutter, the only thing standing between them and homelessness was a pair of elderly legal aid attorneys.
Retired corporate general counsel Orville Copsey created a program 19 years ago at Indianapolis Legal Aid Society designed to help older people who had been cited by the Marion County Public Health Department for living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. He worked closely with the late Christopher Weber, who had formerly worked at Indianapolis Power and Light and Faegre Baker Daniels LLP.
Copsey, helped by Weber, ran the Elderly and Disabled Housing Program that marshals the volunteers and resources needed to repair, refurbish and clean houses so the residents can remain in place. For people who were found to be unable to continue living independently, the program got them into alternative housing.
Judges and attorneys praise the program for finding solutions to very heartbreaking problems. But the initiative is now potentially facing its own crisis. Weber passed away unexpectedly in February and Copsey is retiring at the end of this month.
“The future of the program is uncertain,” said ILAS general counsel John Floreancig. “Funding reductions have made the future uncertain, but we’re doing all we can to save the program because people need it.”
These cases often involve impoverished people who are hoarders or who are suffering from a mental illness such as depression. They have no family members or social support network to call upon for help and end up hopeless and living in squalor.
Amy Jones, supervising code enforcement attorney for the Health & Hospital Corp. of Marion County, which is the parent of the Marion County Public Health Department, described program clients as “the most desperate people in the most dire of circumstances.”
The problems come to a head when the MCPHD files a lawsuit against a resident for living in an unfit space. There in the Marion County Environmental Court, these residents could lose the only place they have to live.
Marion Superior Judge David Certo presided over the environmental court until 2014. He credited the program and Copsey with helping the court understand the situation and finding a way to keep the resident and the neighborhood safe.
“As a judge, the last thing I wanted to tell someone is ‘You can’t go home,’” Certo said.
Copsey and Weber worked as a tag team. Weber focused on the paperwork, finding the property deeds and sorting through the homeowner’s taxes while Copsey appeared in court and drummed up free assistance from businesses, governments and nonprofits around the county.
The work could be complex and physically demanding. Copsey would often gather the solvents and work in the homes, showing the residents how to clean. His goal was to “break the cycle of hopelessness.”
In court, Jones presented the health department’s case, complete with photographs of the distressed house, and Copsey, representing the resident, would successfully argue for a continuance. This gave the housing program the time to scrub the dwelling and get the individual in a better situation.
Some of the clients would continue having difficulty caring for themselves and returned to environmental court again and again over the years. However, Jones said the bulk of people helped by Copsey got back on track and did not get cited again by the health department.
Jones credited Copsey with “single-handedly being responsible for someone not being removed from their home.”
She is hoping ILAS can continue the program even if on a smaller scale of providing pro bono representation in court. Jones pointed out she cannot ignore health and safety violations, so lawsuits against individuals living in troubled situations will continue to be filed.
These defendants, who are usually elderly and financially destitute, will have to come to court, where without an attorney they can be intimidated by the process and left physically and emotionally drained.
“In the absence of this program,” Jones said of the Elderly and Disabled Housing Program, “we’re going to have a nightmare.”•