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Homeless but not Helpless

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News & Media

Homeless but not Helpless

homeless-not-helplessIn 2007, approximately 9,000 families stayed in New York City's homeless shelters each night. It was the worst year for family homelessness in the city's modern history, and the current economic climate has only made a bad situation worse.

New York City is one of the most expensive urban areas for food in the United States. The New York Times reported in June 2008, that more than one-third of city residents have trouble affording food. Rising prices force families to make difficult choices between food and other necessities, and because of the skyrocketing cost of transportation, the cost of fresh foods has risen dramatically, inhibiting healthful diets. In the shelter system, where half of all residents are children, the lack of an essential diet has a critically detrimental impact on growth, development and learning. Additionally, the purchasing power of food stamps has declined as the amount in food stamps provided to individuals and families has not matched the rising cost of food.

The Legal Clinic for the Homeless, started in 1991, works with highly skilled attorneys to ensure that homeless New Yorkers are receiving the public benefits they need to cope with the rising prices of daily necessities. The project is staffed by Lisa Pearlstein, the director, Mary Ashby Brown and Jessica Swensen, along with volunteer attorneys. The project primarily assists homeless families and those at risk of homelessness in securing state and federal public benefits, vital tools in poverty prevention and alleviation. Staff and volunteer attorneys offer advice, advocacy and representation on issues such as accessing and contesting denials and reductions of public assistance, Medicaid, food stamps and public housing subsidies.

In many cases, the clients have tried to advocate on their own behalf with little success. Having an attorney or law student advocate for them provides another voice to aid in the process. "When the welfare agency employees hear there's an attorney on the other end of the line, they pay more attention," said Whitney Potts, an associate at Holland & Knight LLP who has volunteered at the Regent Family Residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan since she was a student at Columbia Law School. The cases often require minimal involvement on the part of volunteer lawyers, but lead to the satisfying and substantial outcome of gaining thousands of dollars in restored or new benefits for clients.

In one case, Ms. M., a Spanish-speaking homeless mother of two—a 19-year-old daughter with Down's syndrome and acute leukemia and a nine-year-old daughter with severe learning disabilities—came to a Justice Center legal clinic at her shelter. She was desperate for help since the City welfare agency reduced her public assistance benefits from $218 to $109 per month, because she failed to comply with the City's requirement that public assistance recipients go to workfare appointments and assignments. Ms. M. had attempted to explain to agency employees that she needed to be with her daughter while she was undergoing chemotherapy, but due to language barriers she was not successful. In short order, a volunteer lawyer from Citigroup collected documentation of Ms. M.'s daughter's medical condition and hospital stays and sent it to top-level City welfare agency administrators, who granted Ms. M. an exemption from participation in the workfare program, raised her benefits to their proper level and restored the benefits that had been cut.

Another key issue for the Legal Clinic for the Homeless is domestic violence. Women who are fleeing domestic violence make up approximately one-third of those served by the project. With the city's domestic violence shelters often at full capacity, survivors spill over into the regular shelter system. "We expect a rise in domestic violence survivors entering the shelter system as the economy worsens," noted Pearlstein. "We are able to advocate for special protections in the public assistance system and housing priorities available to certain domestic violence survivors." Prior to meeting a Legal Clinic for the Homeless volunteer attorney, Ms. S. had escaped an abusive husband and ended up at a shelter in Manhattan with her two teenage sons. Ms. S. works 30 hours per week cleaning apartments, and her oldest son works approximately 25 hours per week at a warehouse store. Working poor individuals in the shelter system must apply to the City for an open "single issuance" public assistance case in order to access Work Advantage, a rent-voucher program that moves individuals out of shelters and into their own apartments. When Ms. S.'s pro bono volunteer met her at a legal clinic, Ms. S. had applied five times over the course of five months for an open single issuance public assistance case. Each time, although she kept all of her scheduled appointments, losing many days of pay in the process, the City rejected Ms. S.'s application without notice or good reason. Ms. S.'s pro bono volunteer began working on the case immediately by emailing top-level City administrators who supervised Ms. S.'s welfare center. Within two days, Ms. S.'s public assistance case was in open single issuance status. Her shelter case manager reports that Ms. S. should be receiving her housing voucher within the next week and able to sign a lease for a new apartment.

The success of the Legal Clinic for the Homeless comes from its model of matching law firms, corporate legal departments and law schools with one of eight participating shelters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Since two to three attorneys/paralegals from each partnering firm or school attend the clinics, the project is enhanced by a sense of camaraderie as volunteers encourage others to attend and are able to consult one another on cases. Current partners of the Legal Clinic for the Homeless include Alston & Bird LLP; Citigroup, Inc.; Columbia Law School; Cooley Godward Kronish LLP; Dechert LLP; Holland & Knight LLP; Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP; Merrill Lynch; Reed Smith LLP and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. The New York Community Trust also has supported the project by funding a staff attorney to focus specifically on young women in shelters, who are often in greater need of help due to lack of life skills and support systems.

The Legal Clinic for the Homeless staff trains and mentors the volunteers, providing intensive case management and support. At least one staff member attends every clinic with the pro bono volunteers, helping to spot and resolve legal issues. Between August 2007 and July 2008, the Homeless Project staff and volunteer attorneys served 622 individuals and/or families through representation, legal clinics, telephone consultations, community activities and presentations.

If you are interested in volunteering for the Legal Clinic for the Homeless, please contact Jessica Swensen, Project Coordinator, at jswensen@nycbar.org or 212.382.6708.

This article originally appeared in the City Bar's monthly newsletter, 44th Street Notes, in January, 2009.