Washington Lawyer

Legends in the Law: Patricia “Patty” Mullahy Fugere

By David O’Boyle

Patrica Patricia “Patty” Mullahy Fugere is a cofounder and the executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, a nonprofit that combines community lawyering and advocacy to assist individuals in the District of Columbia struggling with homelessness and poverty. In 1991 Fugere joined the Legal Clinic full time as its executive director, providing overall management and direction for the organization.

A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Fugere has worked for more than 35 years to give low-income District residents a voice before landlords and local government officials. She cofounded the Fair Budget Coalition in 1994 when the District was facing a financial crisis and many social and legal services providers were forced to make drastic budget cuts. She also was instrumental in the lawsuit that both transformed the D.C. Housing Authority from one of the worst in the nation to a high performer, and led to an ongoing collaborative relationship between agency officials and the legal services community.

Fugere is a member of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the advisory board of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. She serves on the boards of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project and NETWORK Advocates and NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. Fugere is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown Law, where she co-teaches a course on homelessness, poverty, and legal advocacy.

Washington Lawyer recently sat down with Fugere to discuss her life and career in the law.

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in southern New Jersey in the Philadelphia suburbs. My parents were both born in Philadelphia, and so were my brother and I. We were part of the suburban migration into South Jersey in the early ‘60s.

What was your childhood like? What kind of values were instilled in your household?

Family, faith, loyalty, and generosity of spirit. My parents were very giving people. I can’t remember a time when they didn’t say yes to any request or favor asked of them. Giving back—using one’s gifts for others—was paramount, and I was fortunate to have that as an example.

Where did you go for your undergraduate studies?

I went to Georgetown for both undergraduate and law school. I’m a proud Hoya.

Did you go to college with a career in mind?

Not specifically. I was interested in politics and public administration from growing up during the post-Vietnam War, post-Nixon era. I asked myself: What good is the government doing? What good could the government be doing to help the community? That really piqued my interest and was what drew me to pursuing government as a major when I went off to college.

Why did you choose to go to law school?

As a college student, I became involved in tenant organizing in the District. We were working with low-income tenants in what is now the hustling, bustling Columbia Heights neighborhood. It was very different in 1980.

We were helping the tenants to hold on to their homes, improve the conditions, and secure their stability and affordability into the future. I got bit by the affordable housing bug, and I decided that law was one way I could pursue my interest in affordable housing.

I was intrigued by the opportunity to connect with low-income residents in D.C. who were working very hard to do right by their families, but had a really difficult time because of the cost of housing. Even in 1980 it was difficult for low-wage earners to be able to afford a place to live. I was dismayed to see property owners allow buildings to fall into deplorable conditions. Seeing the injustice in that sparked my desire to get involved. As my parents taught me, and I tried to teach my own kids, if you see something wrong, don’t just complain, try to work for a solution.

Can you recall any particular instances from that time that stood out to you?

During my senior year of college, a friend of mine was actively involved in homelessness issues. I accompanied him to a day program for homeless women. As I stood talking to my friend and the program director, I saw a fairly well-dressed woman come into the backyard. She walked up to one of the women who was using the day center’s services and handed her an envelope. The homeless woman was served with a summons to go to court because a petition had been filed to terminate her parental rights.

I didn’t know what her life story was, but [she] surely had some challenges. She probably wasn’t in a position to be parenting at that moment in time. But she probably also wasn’t in a position to understand that she was about to lose her children forever. To see such a life-changing event happen right in front of me forced me to ask myself, what is she going to do? Does she understand what is going on? How can she get herself together in order to reengage with her kids? I realized there are people like her that need lawyers who can help them address their challenges in a positive way. That was a powerful moment for me that is seared into my soul.

Did you do any clinical work during law school?

I did. I was fortunate to participate in the Harrison Institute at Georgetown. Our focus at the time was to work with low-income residents who were living in buildings in poor condition and to try to help them improve those conditions. The goal wasn’t necessarily to help them exercise their tenant purchase rights and buy their buildings, which is much of what Harrison does today, but to improve the physical conditions so our clients had a decent place to live. The owner of the building that we were working with was a notorious slumlord. It was a challenging situation because there wasn’t a solid tenant association; the property owner weakened their power by fomenting discord among the tenants. He essentially bought the goodwill of some of the residents so that they would turn against their neighbors and refuse to stand up against the owner.

We met with limited success because of that, but it helped me see the importance of organizing. It underscored how the law plays an important role, but to be able to bring the law to bear in a situation like that, it is important to have organizers work with the residents to help them stay connected and embrace the power they have if they remain unified. The Legal Clinic works with tenant organizers today in our Affordable Housing Initiative, helping tenants to assert their power and exercise their rights.

And that motivated you to pursue a career in public interest law?

During law school, a friend was tapped to open a women’s shelter. In 1983, during my 2L year, he opened Calvary Women’s Services, which was then located in the Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown.

He invited me to volunteer. As a law student it was a crazy jump between different worlds. I would leave the law library and take the bus up E Street. At the time, Chinatown looked much different than it looks today—it was desolate.

This was the early ‘80s, the rate of homelessness was exploding. People were trying to figure out how to respond, and so that motivated me to start volunteering in the homelessness arena and to make the connections between affordable housing (or the lack thereof) and homelessness. I stayed on as a volunteer at Calvary Women’s Services for a while, and it helped to cement that that was the direction I wanted to go in once I got my law degree.

What did you do after you graduated?

I worked in a small firm here in D.C. When I was nearing the end of my 2L year, I took an internship at a firm called Roisman, Reno & Cavanaugh (now Reno & Cavanaugh). It was an incredible gift that I had the chance to work there because the three partners at the firm—Florence Roisman, Gordon Cavanaugh, and Lee Reno—were giants in the world of affordable housing.

Roisman had been a legal services lawyer at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program and was involved in some of the seminal landlord–tenant cases that set the course for tenants’ rights both here in D.C. and nationwide. Cavanaugh’s advocacy on Capitol Hill was largely responsible for saving public housing against the efforts of Republican administrations in the ‘80s to cut back on funding. Reno was a rock star in the rural housing world.

So I had the chance to work at this firm for a few years, to grow up as a young lawyer with these amazing mentors and role models. They gave me a lot of freedom to pursue a lot of the things I was interested in, like the homelessness connections.

I got wind of a group of members of the D.C. Bar that was starting to come together to talk about what the legal profession could do to address homelessness in D.C. I joined this group of lawyers and we formed the D.C. Bar Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness. It was from that committee that we talked with some of the shelter and service providers to find out how they thought their residents or guests might benefit from legal assistance. We learned that homeless residents did indeed have legal problems—denials of disability benefits, credit problems, wrongful expulsions from shelter, or unlawful evictions—but also discovered that there were barriers to folks who were homeless that prevented them from connecting with providers of legal assistance. That’s what led us to start the pilot project that ultimately became the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Judge Paul Friedman was president of the D.C. Bar at the time and was extremely supportive of our efforts. I believe that his commitment to our work early on was a key factor in our successfully launching this important program.

Were you still in private practice while cofounding the Legal Clinic?

Yes, I was still at the law firm. And I was on the board of the Legal Clinic from our inception until 1991. I left the firm in ‘91 and came to the Legal Clinic as the executive director.

How did the political climate of the 1980s affect your work?

We were in the middle of the Reagan years, and nationally the political climate was hostile with regard to affordable housing. There was tremendous scaling back of support for housing subsidies that certainly contributed to the phenomenon of modern homelessness. That became the big national social and political issue.

On the local scene in 1984, a year or so before this ad hoc committee was established, District voters passed Initiative 17, which created a right to shelter. Seventy percent of the voters in 1984 believed that there should be an entitlement to shelter for anyone experiencing homelessness.

The city pushed back against it. The mayor opposed it. There was some litigation around it. But ultimately the initiative was enacted into law, so there was a right to shelter. The problem was that the city did an abysmal job of providing shelter. For single adults, they used facilities like old, abandoned school buildings. For families, the city housed most of them in hotel rooms. The conditions were deplorable.

There was one hotel downtown called the Pitts Motel, and boy, was it appropriately named! The District incurred a huge expense to shelter families there for virtually nothing in return. That was the atmosphere in which we were birthed as an organization. Some of our early work involved challenging conditions at the shelters and trying to get improvements for the residents.

In 1990 the right to shelter was revoked by the mayor and city council. The advocacy community pushed back, and through a referendum brought the issue back to District voters. Referendum 005 was rejected by a slim proportion of the vote. So that year we lost the right to year-round overnight shelter, although the right to shelter when temperatures fall to freezing or below was retained. Has the law changed since then?

There was a major change to the laws governing homeless services in D.C. in 2005, and that right to “hypothermia shelter” was reaffirmed in that legislation, the Homeless Services Reform Act. It has been subject to some challenges, and there have been some changes and limitations, but at least when the temperatures are at or below freezing, we still have a legal hook to help a family get into shelter if they have no other place to be.

It’s sort of counterintuitive, but it’s a lot more difficult for families to access shelter in the winter than it is for single adults. One would think that there would be more concern for parents and young children, but that hasn’t been the case. The system is more responsive to single adults when it comes to hypothermia shelter. The city has made it fairly difficult for families to access shelter, requiring them to show that there is absolutely no other safe place that they can be. If they’re staying on a couch or sleeping on the floor at a relative’s and their grandmother, who put her own tenancy at risk by having them stay, is going to kick them out on Friday, if it’s only Tuesday the family can’t get into shelter. They have to wait until Friday when they’ve actually been kicked out. We’ve represented families who were sleeping in cars and staying in parks outside of hypothermia season. 

We had one client a few years ago who came up with a creative temporary solution: she bought a roundtrip ticket on Megabus to New York because she had the money to pay for the ticket, but not enough money to pay for a night in a hotel. She felt that riding up and down I-95 overnight would be the safest alternative for her [and her] young child. It shouldn’t have to come to that.

Things are better now than they were several years ago. With the new local administration, there are some leaders in the District government who are trying to make the system work more effectively. We and the administration see some things differently, no doubt, but there are officials who want the District to do right by the families and individuals who seek their help.

What was behind your decision to leave Roisman, Reno & Cavanaugh to join the Legal Clinic full time as executive director?

I took a leave of absence from the firm in the summer of 1991 to hold down the fort at the Legal Clinic during a transition period while we looked to hire a new director. It turned out that it made sense from a number of different perspectives that I stay. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to do that.

At the time I had two very young children. I felt that doing this work at the Legal Clinic was a powerful way for me to live out my values and to show my kids that one way you can use your gifts to serve others is through your professional choices. It can be a full-time commitment, as I was so fortunate to be able to do, or an avocation, as hundreds of D.C. lawyers have done as Legal Clinic volunteers.

What was it like to transition from private practice to full-time public interest law?

It wasn’t difficult. Roisman, Reno & Cavanaugh was a small firm dedicated to affordable housing, so in a sense I already had a public interest practice. The number of people on staff at my firm and at the Legal Clinic was fairly comparable, too. I had no experience working in a large firm, so it wasn’t too much of a culture shock to move full time to a nonprofit. The bigger challenge for me was that I had just started to work full time again after several years part time while the kids were babies. Being on the job full time was my biggest adjustment.

Before you cofounded the Legal Clinic, were there any other organizations or resources that offered similar services?

Not in D.C., specifically for folks experiencing homelessness. There were several models around the country. New York City had a program that is now called the Urban Justice Center. At the time they sent lawyers into soup kitchens to help clients get access to public benefits. There was also a program in Atlanta, Georgia, called the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless. I talked to people who ran both of those programs to learn about how they made their decisions and what their operations looked like. We took advantage of what we were able to learn from them and implemented our findings here. While the Legal Clinic was just getting its sea legs, our neighbors up in Baltimore were starting a similar program, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which now is directed by one of our former attorneys, Antonia Fasanelli.

And in our early years, the American Bar Association established the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty to help other jurisdictions learn how to do this work.

What is your favorite case from your time at the Legal Clinic?

It’s hard to choose just one; however, one that stands out led to significant improvements in D.C.’s public housing. Shortly after I landed here on staff, I became involved in a lawsuit that ultimately led to the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) being placed in receivership. We partnered with the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (before federal restrictions limited its ability to do such work) and with Covington & Burling as pro bono counsel.

DCHA was ranked one of the worst in the country and it was in desperate need of some kind of intervention. It became a political hot potato. Every time we would get close to suing, the mayor would say, “You’re right, it’s terrible. Let me fire the director, and I’ll bring somebody else in.” Then the new person would come in and say, “You’re right, it’s terrible, but it isn’t my fault. Give me a chance!” That process kept repeating itself. We finally said, “Enough is enough. The residents and those on the waiting list deserve better.”

We represented the class of applicants for public housing in what proved to be a transformative intervention. DCHA went from consistently receiving failing grades from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to a top-ranked authority during the five years of receivership. It has been out of receivership now for 16 years, and there remain many difficult issues, but being involved in that case led to a lot of positive change. It also built relationships between the agency and the legal services community that continue today, where legal services lawyers and agency officials have a more collaborative relationship than just about anywhere else in the country. We sit down on a regular basis with the DCHA director and other legal services providers to do problem solving outside the context of litigation.

I’m also very proud of the Legal Clinic’s role in cofounding the Fair Budget Coalition, which is a coalition of organizations that includes social and legal services providers, advocacy organizations, and concerned community members. We came together in 1994 when the city was on the brink of financial disaster and Congress was poised to take over. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly was about to cut $100 million from the city budget, and we knew where that was going to come from—the pockets of people who could afford it the least. So we convened as many colleagues as we could to send a message of unity to the decision makers: You can’t pit us against each other. You can’t say “we’ll fund shelter, but we’ll cut child care,” or “we’ll support people with disabilities, but cut funding for the elderly.” We wanted city leaders to know that the budget could not be balanced on the backs of low-income residents.

The Fair Budget Coalition continues 22 years later. It has had a powerful influence in fighting for a solid safety net. The coalition is as committed as the Legal Clinic in supporting community members and helping them become their own advocates. We do not consider ourselves to be a voice for the voiceless. Every one of our clients has a voice. What they have lacked is an audience. We can help craft situations where they get that audience. We support them, but the individuals are the best people to tell their own story, to speak their truth to power.

There’s a wonderful quote by Arundhati Roy: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” Well, we lift them up and make them heard.

What has been the biggest achievement of the Legal Clinic?

It’s hard to say there’s one greatest achievement. Over the years we have handled approximately 30,000 individual client matters such as helping people gain access to shelter, getting people reinstated on a public housing wait list, getting disability assistance, helping clear up debt that was a mark on somebody’s credit record so now they can get back into housing.

Those individual cases don’t grab headlines or feel as monumental as reforming an agency or funding the safety net programs, but to the individual client, it can be life changing. We have been fortunate to have a wonderful team of hundreds of volunteer lawyers over the years who have multiplied our reach into the community many-fold. They leave their law firm or government office and go into the community to meet clients on the clients’ turf, at intake sites at locations like Miriam’s Kitchen, N Street Village, or the Unity Health Care Clinic.

Another important aspect of the Legal Clinic is our blend of individual representation with systemic advocacy (both litigation and policy work). For our staff, having the chance to represent individual clients and also think about the bigger picture is an important part of our practice model; each gives the other integrity and credibility. We have some folks who are drawn more toward individual representation, and others who are more focused on the advocacy. It’s great to have an organization where both are valued, and people feel they can live out whatever it is that inspires them to do this work. Our staff—both lawyers and nonlawyers—is amazing, and it’s a great gift for me to have such inspiring colleagues. They have the courage to speak out, and to support our clients in speaking out, even when it is unpopular to do so or draws criticism from public officials. Our board is awesome, too. There have been attempts to marginalize our advocacy, but both board and staff are firmly committed to standing with our clients.

How has public policy related to homelessness and housing issues changed during your tenure?

Sometimes it feels as if little has changed. We started out working to find a solution to the welfare motels like the Pitts Motel or the old Capitol City Inn on New York Avenue. And now today, there are hundreds of families housed in motels. So we ask ourselves, what happened? How did we get back to this point? How is there such a limited capacity in the shelter system that the city has no choice but to use motels as a temporary place for folks to stay?

We are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Anyone who rents an apartment in D.C. feels squeezed. Imagine you are working at minimum wage; to make your housing affordable (defined as paying 30 percent of your income in rent) you have to work nearly 120 hours each week. While there has always been a problem around housing affordability, it’s so bad now that our clients are being squeezed from all sides.

When I started doing tenant organizing in Columbia Heights, it was a desolate and quite forgotten part of the city. But not any longer—we know what an amazing place that neighborhood has become. Unfortunately, many low-income residents were displaced in the process. We’re representing tenants now who are trying to hold on to their houses in Congress Heights, which could be the new frontier for development. The city is poised to make property available for a new Wizards practice facility, and there’s a Metro stop there. These are indications that there is going to be a lot of development.

I don’t mean to suggest that development is inherently bad, but it should take place with the people who call this neighborhood home, not at their expense. We believe that there are creative ways to do that where the development doesn’t have to drive our clients out of their homes, but rather can give our clients the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a revitalized community.

Are city officials handling these issues as well as they should?

On some fronts we have seen improvements in the past year and a half, for example with some families being able to access shelter. We have had some significant disagreements on several key issues, one of them being the replacement of the D.C. General family shelter. We agree 100 percent with the administration that D.C. General needs to be closed. No family should have to live in such terrible conditions. We have a different view, though, on what replacement shelters should look like, and we have been advocating that they be configured in a way that will best support families in healing from the trauma of homelessness and regaining stability in their lives.

Do you feel you have enough resources in terms of lawyers who can help?

We can always use more. The DC Consortium of Legal Services providers recently released its Community Listening Project report. The project engaged hundreds of low-income District residents to learn about the challenges that they and their communities face. By far, housing was the greatest concern. To respond adequately to these needs, we—the Legal Clinic, other legal service organizations, and the pro bono community—have to find a way to do more.

What inspires your work at the Legal Clinic?

I used to think that I came to my work because of my faith, but I actually think now that I come to my faith through my work. There are incredible opportunities in doing this work to connect with people and to witness the divine within them, folks who too many of us might just pass by. I see the spirit of people who are so challenged by things that I know I could not endure or overcome, but who find a way to make it through the day. Consider the mom who had to take her kids to McDonald’s in the morning to wash up because they’re sleeping in a car, but she wants them to be clean for school. She gets her kids to school every day and they have perfect attendance. It’s hard to do that when you have a home and a bathroom and a washing machine, much less to do it while living out of a car. I see people who have that fighting spirit and it is an inspiration, a gift to be able to connect with folks like that. It’s what keeps me going every day.

Do you foresee a day when the work of the Legal Clinic is no longer needed? 

That’s my dream. All of us at the Legal Clinic would love to be able to lock the door behind us and not have to come back. But we can’t do that until everyone in the city has a home to go to.

My kids were toddlers when I became the Legal Clinic’s director; now Genevieve is a rising 3L, passionate about legal services work and affordable housing issues, and Gavin seems unable to pass by someone on the street who asks for help without offering a smile, some friendly words, and some assistance. They are long removed from our family game nights when they learned that they could build hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, only if they also built housing on Baltic and Mediterranean. My hope is that in their lifetime, or maybe their children’s lifetime, the issue of homelessness will be solved. It can happen, but only if we embrace housing as a human right and keep working as if it’s an achievable goal. Meanwhile, we do the best we can to help as many people as we can. No one knows what the future will bring, but we do know that right now we see enormous needs right in front of us, and that’s what I’m focused on.