Our country is bracing for the en masse return of hundreds of thousands of men and women from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Early assessments of those returning indicate an alarming trend—the prevalence and severity of post-traumatic distress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury is far more profound than we have seen in connection with any other modern war, including Vietnam. Experts on homelessness recently concluded that the number of Vietnam-era veterans who ended up homeless—largely because of untreated PTSD and addiction relating to self-medication—now exceeds the number of soldiers killed in that conflict. Soldiers returning from the Vietnam War, whose war-related ailments went improperly assessed or treated, became homeless within nine to 12 years. In sharp contrast, veterans of the wars in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) are becoming homeless within nine to 12 months—highlighting how critical it is to prevent such tragic outcomes for this next generation of returning veterans.
The good news is that many in our profession are stepping up to play a leadership role in preparing for the needs of these returning veterans. The American Bar Association (ABA) has called on its entire membership to consider taking on pro bono work for these veterans. Through its Veteran Justice Outreach initiative, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has deployed more than 150 social workers to VA hospitals across the country to work with courts and attorneys in the criminal justice system to direct veterans to community-based treatment and rehabilitation alternatives to jail if they end up facing criminal charges for antisocial conduct arising from PTSD/addiction. Bar associations across the country are calling on their members to step up and support the efforts of public-interest programs that are developing veteran-centered advocacy services.
On a different but equally heart-rending front, the numbers of children and youths living on the streets of major U.S. cities—because their family is homeless, they have no safe family, they are running away from foster care, or they have aged out of institutional care—persists at an alarming rate. In response, public-interest law projects have launched legal clinics geared to address the diverse array of legal problems with which these children and youths must contend. Volunteer attorneys are the life-blood of these clinics.
Solo and small firm practitioners are sometimes uncertain whether they can use their legal skills to truly make a difference on behalf of those at risk of homelessness. These lawyers may not know the types of legal issues that the homeless present or how to navigate the problem of maintaining contact with them. And as solos and small firm lawyers, they may lack the support for such activities enjoyed by lawyers in large firms. This article will demonstrate how, with the right support from the public-interest sector, solos and small firm lawyers can and do contribute enormously to making justice more accessible for those at risk of homelessness, including our veterans and most vulnerable youths. Indeed, there are countless opportunities emerging for these practitioners to join the fray in this vital effort. The examples below highlight how lawyers in solo practice or small firms have become involved in a meaningful way—regardless of where they practice law.
Crisis Ministries Legal Clinic, Charleston, South Carolina
Crisis Ministries, the largest homeless shelter in South Carolina, commenced specialized services for veterans in 2004 as part of a concerted effort to provide a more holistic range of services designed to truly end homelessness among individuals and families. Crisis Ministries bolstered its case-management services with substance abuse treatment, educational services, medical services, psychiatric services, and other specialized supports for its guests. However, the agency discovered a major gap in its service delivery model: the intense need for legal assistance to help guests address myriad legal issues.
Jeff Yungman, Crisis Ministries’ clinical director, saw firsthand the daunting challenges homeless people confront when grappling with their legal problems; he also saw these problems were not being addressed meaningfully by traditional providers of low-income legal services. The transient lifestyle of the homeless, coupled with the destabilizing effect of mental health and substance abuse problems—and, in the case of combat veterans, PTSD—made it difficult if not impossible for them to make appointments. Day-to-day survival was their dominant priority, and so their legal problems got shelved and tended to snowball. Yungman recognized the need to organize a concerted effort to bring legal services directly to the shelter, as opposed to expecting the guests of the shelter to find their way to the providers of such services in the broader community. He was so moved by this insight and its potential to make a profound difference that he applied to the Charleston School of Law (CSOL), and upon being accepted, informed the school administrators that his motivation was to build a connection with the shelter and provide legal services to the homeless there.
The law school proved to be incredibly supportive, and in January 2006, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the first monthly legal clinic was held at Crisis Ministries. The clinic was a joint effort of the shelter, CSOL and its law students, the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, and Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services. The clinic’s approach was holistic; civil legal services were provided by teaming a pro bono attorney from Nelson Mullins with a law student and a client, while at the same time social services were provided by the Crisis Ministries case management staff.
The legal clinic continued to operate on a monthly basis until July 2007. By then Yungman had graduated from law school. With a generous grant from the South Carolina Bar Foundation, Crisis Ministries began providing civil legal services on a daily basis to its guests.
In 2008 the legal clinic officially became the Crisis Ministries Homeless Justice Project (HJP) and expanded to serve the civil legal needs first of any veterans outside of Crisis Ministries who were homeless, and ultimately of anyone in the Charleston area who was homeless. Law students from CSOL continue to be an integral part of HJP, but a breakthrough occurred when Yungman built a rapport with Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services and began having success recruiting sole practitioners to greatly invigorate the legal services HJP offered to its homeless residents. In Yungman’s words, these sole practitioners gave HJP “a huge boost in terms of the legal services HJP could provide”—so much so that 350 to 400 clients a year, many with multiple legal issues, now access crucial pro bono legal assistance. This model works in large part because the core of dedicated sole practitioners who volunteer have in Jeff Yungman the ongoing support of a fully dedicated attorney who knows and has the trust of the clients of HJP and provides expertise to guide the volunteer’s pro bono efforts.
A client we’ll call “Wilton” is a good example of how the partnership between HJP, CSOL students, and pro bono lawyers in solo practice was able to make a difference. Wilton was a veteran who became homeless owing to physical illness and substance abuse problems. He presented five legal issues: (1) he needed an ID, (2) he had credit problems, (3) he wanted a divorce, (4) he was having difficulty with the local food stamp office, and (5) he hoped to increase the percentage of his VA pension benefits.
Yungman, as the lawyer at HJP, and the case workers at Crisis Ministries were able to help Wilton obtain an ID, resolve his food stamp problem, make progress on his VA benefits claims, and coordinate his entry into drug treatment at the VA. The HJP lawyer, through Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, was able to find a sole practitioner to assist Wilton with his credit issues. At the request of the HJP lawyer, another sole practitioner agreed to represent Wilton in his divorce, with a CSOL student drafting all the pleadings including a quitclaim deed as part of the divorce settlement.
Over time, literally all of Wilton’s legal issues were resolved. This support also bolstered his efforts to obtain housing and move out of the shelter—proving that legal supports, when integrated into a holistic service model, truly can break the cycle of homelessness.
Wilton’s story is not atypical of cases that sole practitioners and small firm lawyers can encounter when they take the time to provide pro bono legal services for the homeless. Moreover, in doing so, in the words of Jeff Yungman, they “help level the playing field for people who would not otherwise have legal representation[,] . . . so together we advance social justice and a more equitable and compassionate society.”
Columbia Legal Services/Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington
Columbia Legal Services (CLS) is a statewide nonprofit law firm that protects and defends the legal and human rights of low-income people in Washington State. Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington (SYLAW) provides civil legal representation, information, and education to homeless and at-risk youths in Washington State. Together, these organizations have long provided assistance to homeless children and youths. This work has involved solos and small firm lawyers, and even where it has not to date, opportunities for such lawyers to work in this advocacy area are numerous.
SYLAW’s clients have a variety of legal issues that lend themselves quite well to the work of solos and small firm practitioners. Homeless youths and former foster youths are disproportionately victimized by identify theft at the hands of relatives, and solos and small firm lawyers have played a key role helping rectify these crucial problems. These practitioners have also proven invaluable in assisting homeless youths resolve significant family law issues that put the youths at risk of either ending up on the streets or unable to escape them. Solos and small firm lawyers have emerged as key partners in helping homeless youths clear their criminal records, thereby eliminating a major barrier these youths confront in their effort to enter the workforce and giving them a fresh start. Without such help, it can be practically impossible for such youths not only to secure employment but also to obtain education and housing. SYLAW has set up monthly record-sealing clinics at which attorneys can volunteer to assist under the supervision of experienced attorneys. Solos and small firm lawyers have also helped ensure that homeless students are receiving the education to which they are entitled by advocating for their rights under federal law—again under the supervision of experienced public-interest attorneys.
Finally, with reasonable training, solos and small firm lawyers can also work to prevent homelessness by helping individuals who are at risk of losing their housing; one program with this goal is the Housing Justice Project that CLS helped establish in South King County. Because the advocacy entails representing individuals facing eviction in court and does not generally extend past one day, this can be an ideal way for solos and small firm lawyers to make a difference and gain valuable court experience, yet not have to worry about getting caught up in significant and time-consuming litigation.
Public Counsel Law Center’s Homelessness Prevention Law Project and Center for Veterans Advancement
Sole practitioner Tracy Green met “Brian” (not his real name) through Public Counsel’s Homelessness Prevention Law Project. Brian was a veteran in recovery who had neglected to take his medications to stabilize his mental distress and ended up getting caught stealing $13 worth of chicken meat from a store. Because he had a prior petty theft on his record, the District Attorney’s Office charged this new offense as a felony and second strike—putting Brian at imminent risk of two years’ minimum time in prison. Public Counsel contacted Green to sub in as Brian’s attorney and contacted a veterans’ residential treatment program called New Directions at the West Los Angeles VA. Green was able to persuade the court to divert Brian to New Directions instead of prison. Years later Brian ended up with severe burns that caused him to be hospitalized. He called Green to tell her that he had begun to feel sorry for himself, but then he remembered how her pro bono work had helped him avoid jail; he told her that he was now working and no longer homeless, and he closed by saying, “thank you—I feel like you saved my life.”
This is but one of literally thousands of pro bono matters that Public Counsel—the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services—farms out to volunteer attorneys, including many small firm lawyers and sole practitioners like Tracy Green. Such attorneys work with Public Counsel’s Covenant House Homeless Youth Legal Clinic (where they assist with an array of legal issues similar to those described in the discussion of Columbia Legal Services, above), its Skid Row Legal Clinic, Homeless Court, and also the newly launched Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) program.
The VTC that Public Counsel helps support is designed to capture cases like Brian’s—where mental instability, PTSD, addiction, or homelessness lies at the core of the behavioral problems prompting the arrest. By treating the underlying trauma or instability rather than punishing individuals for their affliction, the court not only administers a more just and humane resolution of the matter but also drastically reduces recidivism. Public Counsel interfaces between the court and the veterans’ services and placements, so as veterans complete their participation with the court, they can have other outstanding legal matters that they need help resolving placed with pro bono attorneys through Public Counsel.
Public Counsel also provides solos and small firm attorneys with a rich array of other pro bono opportunities through its Center for Veterans Advancement (CVA). The CVA strives to engage the private bar to build a continuum of vigorous legal supports to assist veterans returning from the wars in their transition back to healthy reunification with their families and communities. CVA now commands the largest national network of supervisory and technical support for attorneys willing to represent veterans with service-related disabilities in connection with their VA benefits claims.
We hope that these examples reveal concrete ways that solos and small firm lawyers can make a major difference in helping the homeless and helping prevent homelessness. By looking for opportunities to partner with existing public-interest programs, these lawyers can obtain extensive pro bono experience and invaluable professional development opportunities, and also learn more about how their law degree can truly make a difference.
As our veterans return home from the wars and as our most vulnerable youths seek a loving home, we urge you to help them find home “by another way.” Instead of a yellow rose, you can help present a legal bouquet. And perhaps, in return, you will receive a call one day saying, “your pro bono help saved my life.”