Roxanne Velasquez said she was feeding her 1-year-old son, Evan, and chuckling at the little dabs of food smeared across his face when a knock on the door interrupted dinner.
It was a man from the court with an eviction notice.
The next day, she and her boyfriend, Edgar Rodriguez, walked into the Van Nuys Self-Help Legal Access Center. If they had any hope of staying in their apartment, they would have to file a response to their landlord within days. They had been referred to the center, which is paid for by grants and public funds.
One fall day, dozens of people -- some red-eyed from crying, others rigid with anxiety, some downright jubilant -- had crowded into the center, a run-down trailer behind the courthouse, in search of legal help.
Poor people who are accused of crimes get lawyers for free. But tens of thousands of people each year in Los Angeles County who face eviction from their homes but can't pay for a lawyer have a stark choice: Lose, or try as best they can to navigate a system populated by highly trained, suit-wearing, jargon-speaking experts. In a state where up to 90% of people threatened with eviction and as many as 80% who want a divorce make their way through the court system without a lawyer, the state's judicial system has decided it must help. One answer has been self-help centers. Six have opened in Los Angeles County over the last few years, with four more added this year and one planned for early next year, a total of 11.
"We are trying to cope with this," said the chief justice of California's Supreme Court, Ronald M. George. The huge number of people without lawyers, he said, poses "one of the greatest challenges ... for the legal system in the forthcoming decade."
There aren't enough legal aid lawyers in the state to make a dent in the problem. There is one lawyer for about every 240 people in California, but according to Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who heads the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, when it comes to serving poor people, there is one lawyer for every 8,373 residents. And the reality is actually worse, Jones said, because many middle-class people can't afford lawyers either. The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. estimated that the average rate for a lawyer ranges from about $175 to $300 per hour.
Advocates say that puts tenants at a disadvantage -- landlords often hire lawyers.
It also puts a burden on the courts, which get stuck helping people negotiate their cases when those people have little understanding of the law and may not speak English well. Many people don't know where to turn: One day in the Van Nuys courthouse, one man even buttonholed a sheriff's deputy for advice.
Without actually representing people, lawyers and paralegals at the centers help them fill out paperwork to fight an eviction or process a divorce. At some centers, they might try to find a volunteer lawyer to take an egregious eviction case.
But for the most part, they hand out pamphlets with titles such as "How to Prepare: First Step of a Divorce With Kids." They tell people to dress nicely when they go to court and try to find translators when needed. They tell them to bring any evidence to court, too.
Velasquez and Rodriguez, with bright-eyed Evan in tow, walked in on a warm October afternoon.
The first person they encountered was Norma Valencia. Valencia's job title is paralegal/intake screener, but she is known as the triage person.
In rapid-fire conversations that switch between English and Spanish, Valencia evaluates each case. At Van Nuys, the office handles only evictions and divorces; no contract disputes, no lawsuits, no small claims.
"My husband drinks all the time," one woman said. Valencia has heard this one so many times, she barely blinked. "Are there minor children?"
"The youngest is 30," the woman said. Valencia nodded, and handed over a guide to divorce papers.
A couple approached, looking delighted, as though about to pick up free airline tickets to a tropical island. The man said he was seeking a divorce. The woman smiled at Valencia. "I'm the wife," she said. "We're friends. Don't worry."
They got paperwork, too.
The trailer, once a temporary courtroom, is divided in the center. On one side are tables where attorneys and paralegals help people. The other side is a waiting area -- and it's often teeming.
More than 53,000 eviction cases were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the year ending June 30.
Twenty-four hours after a missed payment, a landlord can give tenants a three-day notice, the first formal step toward eviction. If the tenants do not pay within three days, the landlord can give them an eviction notice --regardless of whether they then come up with the money.
Once served, tenants can move or fight. To fight, they file an answer with the court and then argue their case before a judge.
Rodriguez, 21, and Velasquez, 19, were considering their options. They both grew up in San Fernando and moved into their small Van Nuys studio in February. Rodriguez was laid off from his construction job in July as the housing market slowed. Now he does inspections for a builder, making about half of what he did.
Rodriguez said he knew he wasn't going to be able to make October's $650 payment on time but that the manager told him he could have a few extra days as long as he paid a $25 late fee.
The landlord's manager denied that he had made special arrangements with Rodriguez.
"I just feel like they are wrong. We made a verbal agreement," Velasquez said. She also offered another defense, which is used by tenants in many evictions: The landlord had not kept their small apartment in proper repair. A cabinet door had almost fallen on their baby's head. The tub leaked.
Volunteers helped them finish the paperwork, told them where to file it and said they should expect a notice of a court date. Volunteers also warned them that they would have to represent themselves. Their landlord, meanwhile, had a lawyer.
Rodriguez and Velasquez were due in court Nov. 14.
If they lost, they'd not only lose their apartment but their credit could be ruined, and they could be ordered to pay the landlord's attorney's fees. But they could move in with Velasquez's mother if all else failed.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Nov 14, they came running down the third-floor hall of the Van Nuys courthouse, out of breath and looking slightly panicked at the thought of being late.
They had decided to fight and had asked a neighbor to come along as a witness to the cockroaches and plumbing problems.
"I'm nervous," Velasquez said. She had dressed with care, in a skirt and blouse. Her hair was freshly blow-dried and she clutched a faux leather folder that contained photos of leaky plumbing and cockroaches. It also held pages and pages of notes on what to say to the judge. In neat, bubbly script Velasquez had written: "Your honor, the real reason why the landlord is trying to evict us is because we complained about multiple problems in the apartment numerous times."
John Schiro, the attorney for the landlord, came over. The judge had asked all parties to make one last attempt to settle their case.
For 30 minutes, Schiro circled between Rodriguez and Velasquez and Eric Bartel, the landlord's property manager.
Finally, they reached a compromise. Velasquez and Rodriguez would pay October and November's rent by Nov. 15 and move out by Dec. 1. The eviction would not go on their credit history, and they would not pay attorney's fees.
Caron Caines, the managing attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services, which runs several nonprofit self-help centers, said that outcome was fairly typical. Most eviction cases, if they get as far as the courthouse, settle in the hallway before going to trial and are then reviewed by a judge. She added that the couple were lucky that the eviction had not gone on their credit record.
Outside the courtroom, Rodriguez shrugged and said, "Now we just have to find somewhere to live."
By Dec. 1, they were gone from their apartment. Schiro, their landlord's lawyer, later commended them for leaving it in good repair.
"I wish them well," he said. "Nice young couple."