One of ABA President-elect Hilarie Bass’ major initiatives, focusing on the Legal Rights of Homeless Youth, was launched at The Door, a youth drop-in center in New York City on Aug. 10 during the ABA Annual Meeting. The event was hosted by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, the Commission on Youth at Risk and the Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee.
Speaking at the event, Bass referred to the initiative as an outgrowth of when she represented foster children pro bono, a case that led to the end of Florida’s ban on gay adoption. She said she expects to look back on her career one day and see that case as “the most significant thing that I did as a lawyer.”
The Legal Rights of Homeless Youth Initiative aims to meet the legal needs of homeless youth throughout the United States by matching lawyers with shelters, drop-in centers and other homeless youth providers. Bass says she wants law firms, bar associations, law schools and in-house counsel to agree for the next year to pair with a homeless shelter and to commit one day a month to come to a shelter and provide ongoing direct legal representation.
Her goal is to match lawyers with more than 350 homeless shelters across the country, and said tool kits are available to help lawyers, as well as “a motivated staff and volunteers.”
Eve Stotland, director of legal services at The Door, said the center serves about 10,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 24 a year. She is frequently asked, “Why do young people need a lawyer?”
Homeless youth, Stotland said, are usually destitute, disproportionately black or brown, disproportionately face mental illness and are often undocumented.
She cited examples of Door clients with legal issues: one young man with nowhere to sleep spent the night on a subway and was given a ticket by the transit police. Another, who found a supportive program and place to stay while he worked on his mental health issues, was shot and killed by police for stealing a purse. Yet another fled West Africa and forced marriage. With help from her pro bono attorneys, she’s now in college and working in a restaurant.
“And that is why homeless youth need attorneys,” Stotland said. “We have been training for this role our entire careers.”
Executive Director Julie Shapiro listed the integrated, free services The Door provides:
- health, dental and vision services
- mental health services
- art therapy
- career and education programs
- job training, including a partnership with The Gap and Old Navy
- an arts program that includes dance, music, visual art and fashion
- a culinary training program in which young people make about 140 dinners for clients each night.
“We think it is critical to see all young people holistically,” Shapiro said, and to meet their needs comprehensively. She added that partnerships, such as the one now beginning with the ABA, are key to their success.
Bass’ initiative offers several ways lawyers can get involved:
· Direct representation of individual youth with urgent legal needs, such as questions about criminal cases, denial of public benefits, school expulsion, etc.
- Live legal clinics to represent groups of youth who all have similar legal needs, including obtaining identification documents, applications for college funding, expungement of records, immigration status, consumer issues, etc.
- Live legal education or “Know Your Rights” presentations to teach youth about important issues such as rights in foster care, rights as employees/job applicants, options for federal funding for college, etc.