The first thing you notice about the mission statement of the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) is that it is bold: “to eliminate, ameliorate and prevent homelessness in Maryland.” The second thing you notice is that the words suggest conjoined but disparate activities. Activities which may accomplish one goal may not accomplish the others. How does HPRP address these activities? The work is done through the combined efforts of staff attorneys as well as a much larger group of pro bono attorneys over a range of issues.
HPRP’s main efforts in the elimination, amelioration and prevention of homelessness are to direct legal services to issues that will help clients get back into housing or keep the housing they desperately need. These issues include raising the income level of their clients across the board and increasing access to affordable housing. A small staff of attorneys helps families and individuals obtain or maintain resources such as food stamps, state disability assistance and subsidized housing, but a critical part of HPRP’s program is to leverage its resources by training volunteers to uncover these issues in the community.
Amelia Lazarus, Esq., is Director of Pro Bono Programs and works closely with the volunteers. The hallmark of HPRP’s volunteer program is the Shelter Intake Program. “The thrust of the program is to go to where our clients are, which is in the soup kitchens and shelters,” Lazarus explains. By having the volunteers go to the places where people without homes spend time, HPRP eliminates another major barrier to accessing legal services: transportation.
The pro bono attorneys receive training in substantive law areas they will most likely see in the shelter intakes. They learn how to assist clients, obtain needed documentation, resolve identity theft issues, secure public benefits, negotiate debt collection and other consumer law issues, advocate for admission to public housing and expunge non-convictions and some nuisance crime convictions, which criminalize basic necessities for people without housing (public urination is a common one for people who do not have access to restrooms) and pose major barriers to getting a job. In this economy, HPRP’s clients need all the help they can get, so HPRP opened two expungement-only sites, one at Our Daily Bread Employment Center and another at Oliver Community Association, where volunteers meet with clients monthly.
As the volunteers work with clients in shelters and soup kitchens, other issues come to light, such as veterans’ benefits. Homeless veterans who had been diagnosed with covered ailments were being denied or simply not told that they could receive benefits. Some of those not receiving benefits are veterans of the Vietnam War and have received treatment at the VA Medical facilities for years. Those cases are now with pro bono attorneys who took the training this past June.
In January 2008, the City of Baltimore unveiled a plan to end homelessness in the city by 2018. The steps and benchmarks for Baltimore’s plan have been fully detailed and can be seen at www.baltimorecity.gov/mayor/downloads. “Baltimore City is working on its benchmarks in the 10-year plan to end homelessness,” says Antonia Fasanelli, Esq., HPRP’s executive director.
“We are all going to have to work together to achieve the goal of ending homelessness in 10 years,” states Fasanelli, “and that includes not just the non-profit organizations dedicated to eliminating homelessness, but private corporations and the private bar, as well as others, need to play a role so that the plan is a success.”
One way to help is to become a part of the volunteer effort. There will be additional training for the Shelter Project in January 2009 and additional Record Expungement and Veterans’ Benefits trainings in the spring as well.
Support the legal service agencies in your community. Add your resources to the fight. For more information on volunteer opportunities in Maryland, pleasecontact the Pro Bono Resource Center office at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services & Community Outreach for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.