In 1984 Doug Lasdon started the Urban Justice Center (originally known as the Legal Action Center for the Homeless) when he secured a $25,000 grant from the New York Community Trust to work with Emmaus House, a community of homeless people. His goal was to provide outreach legal services to the poor – an outgrowth of his previous work with Covenant House. UJC’s first office was located in a burned-out building in East Harlem at Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, with jury-rigged electricity and no heat.
From the very beginning, we pioneered a vision of legal services that brought our attorneys to the places where poor people were: the soup kitchens, the shelters, the streets. But Doug’s vision went beyond helping individuals, to exposing and eradicating the legal and legislative causes of systemic poverty. Groundbreaking anti-poverty litigation would become as much a hallmark of UJC’s unique model as our work with clients. Some of our first cases established the right of homeless people to receive public assistance, determined that the city was responsible for the plight of youth who age out of the foster care system (leading to the creation of discharge planning), and mandated the right to city-provided shelters for the homeless married couples.
Within a few years, the agency began to grow, and soon other lawyers joined Doug. Our unique project structure was born when, in 1990, we expanded to provide legal services to families and survivors of domestic violence. Soon, the Urban Justice Center had become a home for a number of innovative young legal professionals, looking to offer services to severely marginalized groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people; survivors of domestic violence; and homeless people with mental illness.
Today, we have grown to house eleven different projects and over 90 staff members, who serve diverse stigmatized populations from street vendors to US military veterans. We continue to pursue high-impact litigation, and when the laws necessary to promote and protect justice don’t exist, we pursue legislative efforts to create them. As one example, in 2010, our Sex Workers Project was integral in writing, advocating for, and passing a state law to help survivors of human trafficking get their convictions erased and their lives back together. Organizers around the country hailed the bill as a new “gold standard” for anti-trafficking work, and UJC successfully pursued the first case under this law.
As much as we empower our clients to seek justice, we empower our staff as well. Over the course of the last three decades, UJC has given a start to brilliant minds like Cory Booker, who started at UJC as a staff attorney and is now a Senator from New Jersey. Other UJC alumni have gone on to work as law professors, government officials, and social justice advocates. Some of our projects have become independent organizations, such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Sanctuary for Families, and Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities.
Below is a list of our current projects. Click the links to find out more about their work.