Veterans Day offers lawyers opportunity to aid those who protect our rights and freedoms
Phyllis, an elderly veteran in Wyoming, was disabled, homeless and losing hope. While living on the streets, Phyllis had lost her identification card and all her personal paperwork. As a result, she was unable to apply for food stamps, housing and other assistance.
Looking for help, Phyllis went to a program providing food, clothing, health screenings and benefits counseling to homeless veterans. Fortunately, attorneys with Legal Aid of Wyoming were participating in the event.
After sharing her information, Phyllis received the assistance she needed to apply for a new Social Security card, a copy of her birth certificate and a state-issued identification card. Then Legal Aid of Wyoming helped her access Medicaid, food stamps and veterans’ benefits.
As it turned out, many of her problems were solved simply by working with lawyers. That is why the American Bar Association has launched the Veterans Legal Services Initiative.
Veterans suffer from many challenges, including combat exposure, redeployments and long separations from family members. Medical services can solve some problems. But too many veterans return from active duty to confront urgent legal issues, including evictions, child-custody disputes, wrongful benefits denials and credit complications. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, legal expertise is needed to solve at least half of the top 10 problems that lead to veterans’ homelessness.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated that almost 40,000 veterans are without homes. Veterans make up 20 percent of the male homeless population, while the fastest growing homeless population is women veterans. About 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty and lack of support networks. We can and must do better.
When my law firm volunteered at a homeless shelter in Atlanta, I learned firsthand that many of the men we met were veterans. That is unacceptable. Veterans are men and women who risked their lives in defense of our liberty and to protect a just rule of law. These rights and freedoms speak to the core of our profession. It is only appropriate we repay veterans for their sacrifices.
Our Veterans Legal Services Initiative is led by a 20-member volunteer commission that will harness the vast expertise of ABA membership and our extensive nationwide relationships. Chairing the commission is Nanette DeRenzi, a retired three-star vice admiral and Navy Judge Advocate General, and Dwight Smith, who has provided invaluable leadership to numerous ABA entities.
The commission met in late August and is already working on access to legal services, strategic communications and resource development that will allow veterans and service providers to get the help they need. The most up to date information on the initiative can be found at www.ambar.org/veterans.
We want to engage with law schools and bar associations to promote legal-services incubators that can deliver services to veterans while providing valuable training for new and underemployed lawyers. We also will encourage medical-legal partnerships that pair VA medical facilities with lawyers to solve clients’ legal problems. And we will create a national web portal and other strategies, such as a veterans’ legal check-up, to help veterans identify their legal needs.
Additionally, we will work to expand on a pilot project from two years ago involving the ABA’s Veterans Claims Assistance Network and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It provided pro bono help to veterans whose benefit claims were caught in a massive backlog. This joint venture of the ABA and the VA showed a new path forward for resolving claims.
We are also planning veterans-specific pro bono days around Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. It’s not too late for you and your colleagues to volunteer to help at a Veterans Day event. I invite you to participate with your local or state bar association, or a local pro bono services provider. Learn more at www.celebrateprobono.org.
With your help, more people like Phyllis will find the legal assistance they need to regain the stability and dignity of a home and a good job. We can help so many veterans. Lawyers like us are the key.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Serving Those Who Served: Veterans Day offers lawyers opportunity to aid those who protect our rights and freedoms.”