- Since most cities already have organizations that provide legal services to the poor, such as the Legal Aid Society or Legal Services Corporation, why is H.E.L.P. necessary?
- What types of legal problems are handled by H.E.L.P. volunteers?
- What about conflicts of interest?
- What is expected of H.E.L.P. volunteers?
- I can’t commit to a specific time to staff a clinic. How else can I help?
- How can we get a H.E.L.P. program in my city?
Organizations such as Legal Aid Society and Legal Services Corporation provide an invaluable service to the indigent populations in their communities. H.E.L.P. does not supplant any of the fantastic work done by these dedicated attorneys. Unfortunately, however, the legal needs of the poor are so great that no one organization can do it alone. Most indigent legal services organizations struggle with limited budgets and are spread thin due to the high demand for their services.
In addition, it is often difficult or even impossible for homeless individuals to take advantage of those services because they are unable to access them. Many homeless individuals suffer from mental illnesses that prevent them from taking the steps necessary to independently contact an attorney and visit the attorney’s office. Many others are so daunted by the prospect of visiting a lawyer’s office that they simply cannot bring themselves to do so.
H.E.L.P. brings legal services directly to the homeless population, and makes those services available in a non-threatening setting – the place that provides the clients with food and shelter. H.E.L.P. also partners with other pro bono service providers in some cities, exchanging and sharing services to benefit both organizations.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the legal problems of the homeless are a lot like the legal problems that other people face. H.E.L.P. volunteers are presented with a wide variety of legal issues, from employment law to income tax to estate matters. That said, however, there are certain types of issues, such as minor criminal matters, that tend to come up at H.E.L.P. clinics more frequently than others. For example, an outstanding warrant may have resulted from something as simple as a citation that was ignored by the client. While this usually turns out to be a very simple matter for the attorney to resolve, an outstanding warrant may have been preventing the client from obtaining benefits, applying for a job, or getting housing for a very long time. Problems with driver licenses also common and can have a huge impact in the clients’ lives, since the inability to drive may stand in the way of employment. Social security and disability benefits also come up frequently.
Many states have now adopted ABA Model Rule 6.5, which provides protection against conflicts of interest for attorneys engaged in short-term pro bono representation:
In states where the rule has not yet been adopted, some firms have developed lists of particular types of cases in which they are likely to run into conflicts, and they decline to interview or assist clients with those types of cases. For example, a firm that frequently represents realty companies may have to refer all housing matters to another firm. If you are uncertain as to whether there may be a conflict, you can simply inform the client that you will need to check for conflicts before addressing his or her problem. Many of the matters will involve dealing with government agencies about driving licenses, benefit applications, and outstanding warrants. Hopefully, these will not pose conflict problems.
The way the program works is pretty simple. Attorneys staff a weekly clinic at a homeless shelter or other service provider. They meet with clients who have signed up in advance with the provider staff, and offer legal advice and assistance just as they would for any other client. Unless there is a conflict of interest, or the attorney feels unable to handle the particular problem presented, he or she will handle it to conclusion. If the problem is one that the attorney doesn’t feel able to address, he or she should refer it, either to another member of the firm, or to one of the referral attorneys listed in the H.E.L.P. manual.
We hope that each law firm will volunteer to cover a full month of clinics so that we can establish a year-round schedule that operates perpetually, with the same firm handling the same month each year. However, individual or smaller firm volunteers are always very welcome, and there is plenty of work for them to do! The coordinator in each city works to ensure that all clinic times are fully staffed, and that all volunteers have a meaningful place.
In addition to clinic staffing, volunteers are also needed to provide advice and assistance in specific legal topic areas. Volunteers staffing a clinic may not have experience in some areas of the law that come up during a clinic – criminal law, social security, or child custody, for example. The H.E.L.P. manuals contain contact information for volunteers who have agreed to make themselves available to answer questions and give advice in their specific areas of legal expertise when needed.
New H.E.L.P. programs get started when interested attorneys decide to make them happen. Together with Judge Zainey, the interested lawyers identify a local homeless service provider that wants to participate, is well run and organized, and serves a sizable number of homeless individuals. The shelter staff and facilities are very important, because the shelter must assist in coordinating appointments for clients to see the attorneys, and must provide adequate meeting facilities for attorneys to confer with clients. Once the shelter is on board, volunteers must be recruited. With the assistance of both the interested lawyers in the new location, and contacts in H.E.L.P. volunteer firms around the country, Judge Zainey will invite local attorneys to attend a volunteer recruitment meeting. He will attend the meeting to talk about the program and encourage lawyers to sign up. It is also important to involve local judges and other officials in the recruitment process if at all possible, H.E.L.P.ing to encourage the greatest involvement from the start. Please use our secure form to contact us.