Sometimes it can take just one bad incident to change a person’s life. Other times, it’s ongoing adversity that keeps someone engulfed in hardship. As our attorneys provide free legal assistance at homeless shelters in several cities, they encounter people who are accustomed to life on the street, as well as those who’ve only recently suffered a major setback.
D.C. associate Jennifer Toland-Frewer, volunteering at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, was introduced to a disabled man who suffered from schizophrenia and hearing loss. Because of his disabilities, he could not get a job. Yet his requests for Social Security disability status and housing assistance had been denied.
“After interviewing this man extensively, it was clear to me there was no way he could get gainful employment,” says Jennifer. Jennifer worked on his behalf for six years, ultimately obtaining disability benefits and housing for him. Now, on every major holiday, her former client sends her a note thanking her for helping him get off the streets. “It’s so valuable to me on so many levels to help people who are so clearly deserving of assistance,” says Jennifer of her work at the clinic.
Linda Atkins, of counsel in our Bellevue office, volunteers at the YWCA Angeline’s Eastside Women’s Center in Bellevue. She counsels homeless women during monthly clinics, providing assistance when the clients have legal problems or referring them to other service agencies when necessary.
“The kind of person you wouldn’t think would wind up at a homeless shelter” is how Linda describes one of her clients.
The woman had been successfully employed for many years with a Seattle company. Several years ago she was the victim of an assault that left her with cognitive problems. She can’t work, and with no family to rely upon, is dependent on homeless shelters and Social Security disability income. “She spends a lot of time shuttling between shelters and the street,” says Linda.
The woman’s medical problems were compounded recently when she was the victim of a hit-and-run driver in a parking lot. She now has residual medical issues. Linda is trying to help the woman find who hit her and recover nonreimburseable medical expenses.
Most of the women Linda has counseled have been disabled in some way. “They just want to find work, stay fed, and keep a roof over their heads,” she says.
Paula Lehmann, a partner in our Bellevue office, provides similar assistance at The Sophia Way, a shelter for single homeless women. As an employment lawyer, Paula was concerned that she would not be familiar with the types of problems her clients would have. “As it turns out,” she says, “many issues overlap with employment issues.” Equally important, notes Paula: “You can make them feel heard, which I feel is very important to these women. And you send them from the appointment with the steps they can take to work toward solving their problems.”
Attorneys in our Bellevue office volunteer for this work through the Eastside Legal Assistance Program (ELAP), which marked its 20th anniversary in 2009.
Our Seattle office has a long-time relationship with Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), a large homeless shelter for men and women where we assist people with their legal matters through the King County Bar Association. DWT was instrumental in establishing the bar’s legal services program for the homeless about 20 years ago.
One day each month, a team of DWT lawyers and staff goes to the shelter to meet with people who have signed up to talk with us about their legal issues. Associate Joanne Montague joined the team about a year ago, and has discovered that most of the clinic’s attendees are struggling with a tangle of problems relating to housing, unemployment, bankruptcy, past criminal convictions, or other such issues. “They may come in with one problem,” Joanne says, “but when we speak to them we discover a lot of underlying problems that have to be dealt with first. My goal,” she adds, “is to break down the issues into smaller parts and advise them on what to work on first.”
A recent client is a young man without a birth certificate. Born in Massachusetts with albinisim, he was apparently unofficially adopted by a woman who raised him and whose last name he used as his own. When her alcoholism and lifestyle turned abusive, the client, then a 15-year-old, ran away to the streets of New York where he lived for several years, until about three years ago when he came to Seattle. His need to access medical benefits for his health conditions brought him to our legal clinic, because without a birth certificate he is unable to obtain a Social Security number. We are currently researching his situation.
In 2011, our DESC team served 46 clients. The team consisted of lawyers Marco de Sa e Silva, Joanne Montague, Carly Summers, Missy Mordy, Jonathan Lloyd, Pete Johnson, Ken Payson, Sheehan Sullivan-Weiss, Maya Yamazaki, Holly Wylam Klein, and staff Mieko Beyeler, Mary Dougherty, Patrick Watts, Julie Orr and Andrea Carino.
Full Spring 2012 Pro Bono Report