Princeton Justice Initiative Paves Paths Out of Poverty

By Rebekah Schroeder
Dec 20, 2023

(Princeton, NJ — December 20, 2023) When justice comes without a price tag, our region’s support systems can now connect people who have slipped through its proverbial fingers with free legal help courtesy of a new project dedicated to making civil counsel
both affordable and accessible.

The Princeton Justice Initiative is a nonprofit organization that connects economically disadvantaged
communities in the Mercer and Somerset County regions with pro bono civil legal services and local resources to help them escape conditions of poverty.

As a social impact entity designed to honor everyone’s unequivocal right to counsel, PJI enlists a client advocacy team of volunteers to confront economic injustice at the individual level with personalized action plans for relief.

The Princeton Justice Initiative’s co-founders, Lavinia Lee Mears, left, and Lisa Cimpko, right, at a past ShareFair event, a pop-up community resource center where people in need can access vaccines, groceries, information, and even pro bono legal aid.

PJI affirms on its website, pjihelps.org, that “understanding what legal rights and social services assistance [are]available can mean the difference between progress and falling deeper into poverty or escalating a crisis,” especially for those who often “fall between the cracks, including those who are homeless, living in poverty, disabled, seniors, and veterans, as well as those thrust into situational poverty due to sudden job loss or personal crisis.”

The PJI is based out of a second-floor office space in the Clock Building at 1000 Herrontown Road in Princeton along Route 206.

PJI gained its pro bono certification from the State of New Jersey in October, ensuring that volunteering attorneys who lend their time are able to recognize even just an hour of consultation, whether in-person or over the phone, as part of their pro bono service.

Because of the 1992 judgment in the Madden v. Delran case, all practicing attorneys are eligible for and may be assigned pro bono cases to represent persons who cannot afford counsel. Attorneys who certify at least 25 hours of volunteer time are excused from taking on court-appointed, mandated pro bono assignments the following year.

Attorneys can propose a range of legal insights, advice, and consultations, stepping in to discuss with clients what options they have moving forward. PJI is recruiting professional lawyers who will be able to share information customized to the individuals who need it most, imparting how to best effectively problem-solve an issue or referring them to other practitioners or services.

Subject areas that attorneys can support clients in are issues related to housing, such as evictions or foreclosures, food insecurity, immigration, financial literacy or abuse, and other obstacles barring people from accessing adequate healthcare, education, and employment.

But volunteers from a variety of disciplines and life experiences are encouraged to share their unique expertise in education, business, philanthropy, and more, with some services even provided, in part, by people who have come from similar backgrounds. Thanks to their tireless work and the outstretched hands of organizations like PJI, these advocates are then able to become mentors and form a regional support network to show that the cycle can be broken.

Princeton Justice Initiative interim CEO Saul Petersen.

Dr. Saul Petersen is the interim CEO at the Princeton Justice Initiative, a position he has held since May of this year. Petersen, an educational psychologist from Ireland who now lives in Maplewood, is also the executive director of Engage NJ, a coalition that promotes the benefits of active civic engagement on college campuses.

Petersen explains that PJI began largely with the “ideas and dreams” of Hillsborough attorney, who co-founded the nonprofit with her husband, James Parasole, and friend Lisa Cimpko, in May 2020.

Mears applied for a grant with AmericCorps, formally known as the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent government agency that oversees volunteer programs and networks.

When PJI received that two-year grant from AmeriCorps Seniors, as Petersen explains, the three realized that they needed someone with the time and nonprofit experience to take on a leadership role for the organization.

According to Petersen, social justice is a recurring theme in his work, noting that “this country, in particular, requires that everybody do their part to fight for the underdog [and] try and make a difference” in whatever way they can — a prerogative that fits perfectly with the PJI mission.

Now, the three co-founders are active members of the board of directors, where they continue serving in both “attorney and advisory capacities.” Mears chairs the board and remains PJI’s
executive director, while Cimpko, a longtime sales manager in the hotel and resort industry, is the
director of client advocacy. James, on the other hand, is the senior director of user experience for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“They bring the passion and the desire to see this effort be sustained long-term, and in order to have the impact it needs to be able to measure a difference,” Petersen adds.

A major part of PJI’s federal funding with AmeriCorps Seniors, Petersen says, was to develop partnerships that allowed them to establish regular pop-up or remote community fairs, known as “ShareFairs,” in the greater Central Western New Jersey area.

The “ShareFair Community Resource Fairs” are temporary hubs of information and direct assistance, carried out in collaboration with volunteers and service providers, to coordinate a comprehensive repertoire of care for residents in need. At these events, citizens can access everything from flu shots to help with online navigation, as well as civil legal aid.

The ShareFairs not only support the Princeton Justice Initiative’s outreach efforts, but also empower other organizations that, by banding together in a one-stop shop, are able to serve more members of the community — including many who may not be aware of or have traditionally had access to such services, Petersen explains.

“There’s that focus on [identifying] what we’ve come to believe are areas of greatest need in a particular town, and then to build the partnerships and the resources to do our best to fill, in some small capacity, the areas that the community [has] expressed greatest concerns or greatest needs [over],” he explains.

PJI is planning for its first ShareFair in Trenton in January, with the goal of hosting monthly events to bring these opportunities “into areas of existing high family foot traffic,” as well as teaming up with Trenton Central High School and the nonprofit East Trenton Collaborative.

The ShareFairs serve as a helpful volunteer recruitment system for PJI, yet anyone wishing to dedicate their time or talents to a ShareFair must do so ahead of the event. Pre-registration is also required to meet with attorneys, given the “limited appointments” available each day. For more information on ShareFairs or to sign up, visit sharefair.pjihelps.org.

The most recent ShareFair was held on December 9 at the (or ) at 600 Washington Avenue in Manville, where PJI offered free groceries, flu vaccines, and informational resources following the ’s “Breakfast with Santa” program.

“We were able to, in maybe a softer, less intrusive way, just be part of the event, and then to say if people wanted to stay afterwards, they could come and meet with us and our partners,” Petersen explains.

PJI was joined by representatives from the Somerset Department of Health and Somerset Helps, a mobile outreach van designed to reach neighborhoods throughout the county, Feeding Hands, a Hillsborough-based food pantry, and HOPES CAP, Inc., a member of the national network of Community Action Partnerships.

Petersen estimates that about three hundred people, roughly a third of them families and predominantly Spanish-speaking, gathered for the holiday festivities; of those, 15 visited the ShareFair and received flu shots, 25 left with bags of groceries for future meals, and 42 people learned where to find health screenings and other services.

Anyone can visit the sharefair.pjihelps.org website to register as a volunteer or service provider,
“but perhaps most importantly, they can register to become a client, whereby then our small administration acts on their behalf to identify the appropriate person, connect them, and ensure that process is seen through to the end — wherever that point is,” Peterson says, adding later that people may also contact PJI directly at americorps@pjihelps.org or 609-366-6186. The website header links to resources, a legal document library, and a client case portal.

Another aspect of PJI’s mission is to conduct public interest research on how the ripple effects of change work against the key issues affecting this population, using “client impact information” to track the progress of each case — with their privacy fully protected — while having them identify the gaps in the system that contributed to their respective conditions of poverty, homelessness, hunger, and more.

According to the vision outlined on the PJI website, by generating these solutions at a local level, PJI hopes to influence the “best practice standards” for the United States, taking small steps to end the larger, systemic issues at play.

But PJI’s greatest success lies within the story of Vanessa Solivan, a lifelong Trenton resident whose family’s struggles with poverty and homelessness were the subject of a September 2018 New York Times article by Matthew Desmond, “Americans Want to Believe Jobs are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not.”

Desmond, a sociology professor at and the author of the 2017 for general nonfiction, “Evicted,” depicted Solivan’s day-to-day life as a single mother of three teenagers working as a home health aide. At the time of publication, her employment was consistent yet economically insufficient, bearing little monetary
fruit for growth.

For years, the Solivans lived out of a car, motel rooms, and a brief return to Vanessa’s childhood home, moving around without a stable residence to anchor them. Vanessa, despite actively working, was unable to earn enough income to assure her family had what they needed to survive on a daily basis, let but after years of perseverance, Solivan created a new legacy for her children by purchasing the house she had always dreamed about, becoming both a homeowner and a community activist.

Under Petersen and the board’s leadership, the Princeton Justice Initiative is helping people like Vanessa Solivan, right, confront economic injustice and build better lives.

On the PJI website, pjihelps.org/our-impact/helping-the-solivan-family, former chair of the Housing Initiatives of Princeton Carol Golden shares how Solivan accomplished this through support from PJI co-founders Mears and Cimpko, community partners like the HIP, volunteers, and representatives from the City of Trenton.

Housing Initiatives of Princeton is a nonprofit that provides Princeton-area individuals and families experiencing housing insecurity with “transitional housing, personalized case management, and a network of community support.”

According to Golden, “Vanessa found her way to HIP after she and her three kids were evicted from their home in a Trenton Housing Authority apartment for falling behind on rent. As a home health aide, Vanessa is one of the ‘working poor’ whose income fluctuates widely depending on the needs of the health agencies that hire them. The stress of this instability was impacting everyone in the family,” she continued. “Unfortunately, HIP had no available units when Vanessa first found us. But HIP and Vanessa stayed in touch, and when a unit became available months later, Vanessa and her three kids moved into one of HIP’s 2-bedroom townhouses in Princeton. The Solivans had found a place where they could take a breath, live in a clean, safe home they could afford, and focus on what they needed to flourish.
Vanessa and the kids were part of the HIP family and lived in the townhouse for almost three years (including some of the hardest months of the pandemic).”

Solivan expanded her professional skills as a result of HIP-funded EKG technician training, revamped her résumé, and pursued new job opportunities. When her car broke down, HIP organized a vehicle donation so she could still have a reliable form of transportation.

Solivan expressed a strong desire to reclaim her grandmother’s former property in Trenton, a condemned structure adjacent to her mother’s house that was sitting idle in city inventory. She came to Trenton’s city council with the idea of rehabilitating other vacant houses and providing much-needed shelter for residents facing housing insecurity.

Golden writes that while Solivan’s proposal was successful, she needed to fulfill certain requirements and advocate for herself in order to stay afloat while the government program set its bureaucratic wheels in motion.

Former PJI client and proud Trenton homeowner Vanessa Solivan, left, with former chair Carol Golden of the Housing Initiatives of Princeton, right.

The PJI connected Solivan with Nancy A. Lottinville, an associate attorney with more than 40 years of experience in land use, redevelopment, and transactional real estate law who practices at both the Hackensack and Mount Laurel offices of the firm Prime & Tuvel.

Attorney Nancy Lottinville.

Lottinville assisted her with completing and filing the proper paperwork for official funding while Solivan attended financial literacy classes at Isles, a Trenton community development and environmental organization, and HIP found the family temporary housing.

After a successful pilot in 2022, the City of Trenton officially launched the “New Beginnings Housing Program,” also called the “Solivan New Beginnings Home Ownership Program ,” this August.

The program enables individuals and families to revitalize a Trenton property and follow a set of steps to own it as a hopeful beginning to a legacy of generational wealth. Solivan was able to buy her grandmother’s old house through the initiative, inspiring the local government to champion a cause that would empower others like her to do the same.

What differentiates this program from others before it, according to the City of Trenton website, is that instead of giving properties away for a dollar like in 2014, residents can own a house from the city’s stock and use grant funding to tackle the costs of taxes, maintenance, utilities, code compliance, and more — all while teaching them the life skills needed to redevelop the property. For more information on the history of the “New Beginnings Housing Program,” see trentonnj.org/757/New-Beginnings-Housing-Program.

In reporter ’s Phineas Hogan’s August 8 Trenton Journal article commemorating the inaugural home, he writes that “Solivan’s case will serve as a blueprint to address Trenton’s vacant property and housing insecurity problems, and the city hopes the New Beginnings Housing Program will be the catalyst to eliminating the issues through Trenton’s community without outside developers tearing properties down or driving up prices.”

“The New Beginnings Housing Program will support new homeowners throughout the acquisition of the city- owned properties, as well as with the redevelopment costs. The grant Solivan is receiving from the city is upwards of $90,000,” he continues. “Solivan did not have to take on a mortgage or loans for the house, and in the 15-year contract she signed with the city is an agreement that if she were to sell the home, the city would get a cut of the proceeds.”

HIP and PJI also acknowledged Trenton Mayo Reed Gusciora, city attorney Julie Murray, and retired construction company leader-turned-volunteer Charlie Yedlin for their roles in realizing Solivan’s vision.

According to Petersen, Solivan is now a PJI board member and leading the charge to expand the Princeton Justice Initiative into Trenton. She has since turned the lot between her family’s properties into a community garden.

Vanessa’s story is by far the one that took the most effort and led to the greatest impact, as the story highlights, she’s a real change agent and activist in the Trenton area, so it’s a lovely case of somebody who is provided some resources, human dignity, who then wants to turn that into affecting other people’s lives,” he says.

Petersen adds that “the legal support and the greatest shoulder to the real efforts were made by the founders,” referring to Mears and Cimpko, and PJI is hoping to find volunteer attorneys of similar compassion to help in future pro bono cases.

“Our greatest struggle generally is finding responsive, proactive attorneys willing to see a case, willing to initiate the client, and then see the case through. So, while we are going about a whole lot of different strategies to try and be successful with that,” he explains, “the greatest challenge is to get an attorney or a number of attorneys to be proactive, even for a few hours a month.”

Petersen plans to remain the interim CEO for the remainder of the AmeriCorps Seniors grant period, which runs through June 2024. He acknowledges that although “the doors might very well close” after
that funding ends, PJI is ready to keep moving forward for change.

He hopes to see PJI specifically expand on the “Justice Bus” model, a “mobile legal clinic” staffed by volunteer attorneys and law students who take the vehicle directly into communities for many of the same in-person services offered at PJI’s ShareFairs. By not requiring people to visit a physical site, the buses eliminate the barrier that transportation poses for underserved groups.

Petersen explains that this type of initiative has been effective throughout the country, with programs in Tennessee, Ohio, New York, Minnesota, and California. The funding for these may come from a combination of each state’s Supreme Court, governmental bodies, and/or local nonprofit organizations.

“We will hear cases and work for and advocate on behalf of clients in the community who come up to their ‘Justice Bus.’ What we would like to do, having conducted some research here in [New] Jersey, is try to adapt that model into a mobile community center and take the ShareFair model on the road so that it’s not just legal services but also, through our partners: vaccine services, health screening, pantry, grocery bags, and also just general legal, public health, social work, [and] advocacy for clients,” Petersen adds, noting that PJI’s next step is to work towards the funding and design of a “Justice Bus.”

Petersen believes that PJI can have “the greatest impact” by establishing “a fleet of these mobile community centers” in operational partnerships with law students and public health personnel who can travel across the state to help as many families as possible.

“That type of effort is something that needs to be developed and expanded out of Somerset and Mercer counties to fill any gap in any area in New Jersey, and then who knows after that? But the level of effort that it takes to change the course of one family’s life means that people need he says.

Princeton Justice Initiative, 1000 Herrontown Road, The Clock Building (Second Floor), Princeton 08540.
PJIHelps.org, 609-366-6186, or americorps@pjihelps.org.

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