September 01, 2016

ABA supports bill to help provide legal services to homeless veterans

ABA President Linda A. Klein, highlighting the plight of homeless veterans, encouraged the House this month to pass H.R. 6046, bipartisan legislation that would authorize the secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to enter into partnerships with public and private entities to provide legal services to homeless veterans and veterans at risk of homelessness.

“Homeless veterans face barriers to housing, employment and services that the federal government cannot remove, but a lawyer can,” Klein said in a Sept. 19 statement. “Allowing increased private-public partnerships with the VA to improve these veterans’ access to legal help would take a desperately needed step toward ending the scourge of veteran homelessness in America,” she explained.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) and cosponsored by Reps. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) and Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), provides that the VA secretary, in entering partnerships with public or private entities, must ensure that the partnerships are equitably established across the United States to include rural communities and tribal lands. The bill provides that legal services may be related to:

• housing, including eviction defense, and representation in landlord-tenant and foreclosure cases;

• family law, including courts proceedings for child support, divorce, estate planning and family reconciliation;

• income support, including assistance in obtaining public benefits; and

• criminal defense, including defense in matters symptomatic of homelessness, such as outstanding warrants, fines, and driver’s license revocations, in an effort to reduce obstacles in employment or housing that result in recidivism.

The legislation calls for consultation by the secretary with veterans service organizations and other appropriate organizations to coordinate appropriate outreach relationships, and the secretary may require those entering into partnerships to submit periodic reports on the legal services they have provided.

An initiative announced in 2009 by President Obama and the VA has reduced the overall number of homeless veterans, with VA statistics showing that nearly 230,000 veterans and their family members have been permanently housed since 2010. Recent statistics from the annual survey of the Community Homeless Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups (CHALENG) reveal, however, that while the number of veterans experiencing homelessness on a given night has been reduced from 76,329 in 2010 to just over 49,000 last year, the needs of homeless veterans have remained fairly constant.

Klein emphasized in a Sept. 21 letter to Beatty that the CHALENG surveys show that for the past five years, four of the top 10 reported unmet needs of homeless veterans require the assistance of a lawyer. Those four needs are issues related to child support, restoration of driver’s licenses, outstanding warrants and fines, and foreclosures and evictions.  Other identified unmet needs include credit problems, discharge status upgrades and guardianship matters that could benefit from a lawyer’s help, she said. 

“Resolving these issues is critical to ending homelessness because they operate as total barriers to housing, employment, benefits and services,” Klein wrote. She provided an example of a homeless veteran sleeping in the wrong spot and being issued a trespass citation that the individual cannot pay. Without a permanent address, the individual is likely to miss a court date, which would lead to a warrant that would disqualify the veteran for employment and other programs. Another example is the loss of a driver’s license, the primary form of photo identification necessary for access to VA services. It is not uncommon for veterans to be disqualified for housing vouchers because of past credit issues, child support arrearages or other matters, she explained.

Klein pointed out that most of the work in the legal community to help homeless veterans has been borne by volunteer lawyers, specialized nonprofits and cash-strapped civil legal aid offices, emphasizing that it “will take both the VA and the legal community working together in an even more concerted way to meet the need of veterans.” The legislation, she said, would provide a “powerful tool to make this collaboration real.”

Klein, who has designated legal services to veterans as a priority during her ABA presidency, launched the ABA Veterans Legal Services Initiative in August to help meet the specific needs of veterans and their families.

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