Volunteers and service site directors from around the country share their inspiring experiences with the H.E.L.P. program.
“It means a lot to have lawyers in here who can perform legal triage. They can handle a lot of these issues quickly, and then they hand me their card, and it expands what I am able to do when the guys here come to me with issues.”
Don Thompson, Director of New Orleans’ Tomson Center
“What Judge Zainey has done is incredible. Not only is he helping the homeless, but he is opening the eyes of people who would normally cringe at the sight of a man in rags begging on the corner. This work keeps your practice in context. He mobilized the entire Bar across the spectrum.”
Duke Williams, St. Martin & Williams
“…and what do you know – it wasn’t some amorphous group of bums I met, but individual persons who told me their stories. I talked to the type of people I’d avoid in the streets because they smelled bad. I’d sit there with a fellow all downcast as he talked, but when he left, after I’d helped him for a while, his shoulders were squared back and he thanked me. All of a sudden, I went from being an ignorant lawyer to being a knowledgeable lawyer.”
“When the person came in to see me, his face was downcast. After he and I discussed his legal issues, and came up with solutions, he looked up to me and thanked me for treating him as a human being – and with dignity and respect… He walked out the door… I felt like I won the biggest case of my career. I would like to see this person again to thank him for giving me the opportunity to really make a difference in his life.”
“Webster’s defines ignorance as ‘the absence of knowledge.’ I am compelled to share with you a poignant example of just how wrong, and ignorant, my preconceived notions of ‘the homeless’ have proven to be. Before I joined the HELP program, the ‘homeless’ were, in my mind’s eye, this mass of humanity with neither shelter nor gainful employment, and all OBVIOUSLY due to lack of ambition, laziness, etc. After all, anyone can get a job somewhere, right? McDonald’s is always hiring, isn’t it? Certainly anyone with even the slightest bit of desire can get a job washing dishes, hauling garbage, digging ditches, or something, right? Circumstance can strike in such a manner that, despite one’s best efforts, a roof over one’s head, and/or a job, are impossible to attain, or maintain.
Benjamin is a 35 year old gentleman of African-American descent who, until 5 weeks ago, had never been homeless in his life. Benjamin worked 2 part time jobs to provide for himself. He worked 3-4 days a week washing dishes and busing tables at a local cafeteria, and 1 day a week for a local construction company. In June, Benjamin was working his construction job when a pipe broke, covering him in commercial grade cement, causing 2nd and 3rd degree chemical burns on his chest, stomach, and arms. Because of his burns, Benjamin was unable to work washing dishes or busing tables at the cafeteria, and was fired. Hold on, you might say: What about worker’s compensation?
Benjamin was certainly hurt on the job and hence is entitled to W.C. benefits. True, but since Benjamin was injured on the job where he only worked an average of 1 day per week, the law mandates that his employer only has to pay him 66.67 % of his average weekly wage, which in Benjamin’s case amounts to less than $38/week. At $38/week, Benjamin knew he could not pay his rent. Benjamin asked his landlord to bear with him until he could get back to work; his landlord evicted him. Benjamin is now homeless. It is Benjamin’s fervent desire to return to work as soon as humanly possible. His burns, however, will prevent him from doing so for at least another 4-6 weeks. Without a permanent address, Benjamin is worried that employers will not hire him once he is fit to return to work.
Even if successful in securing employment, it will take him months to save enough money for the required damage deposit, and first month’s rent, even for a modest one bedroom apartment. In the interim, Benjamin reports that he has never been more scared in his life. The ‘streets,’ he reports, are a dangerous place. Most nights he has been successful in securing a room at a homeless shelter; some nights he has not been so lucky, being relegated to sleeping in the bushes or in public parks, on top of his remaining belongings to prevent their theft. Benjamin reports that the police have stopped and questioned him 3 times in the past week. Sooner or later he believes that he too will be arrested, essentially for being homeless. An arrest record will undoubtedly further hamper his efforts to secure employment.
I volunteered to help the homeless program to help the disadvantaged. At this moment I fervently believe that I have benefited much more than those I was, and am, seeking to help. At the very least, my ignorance of the plight of the has been eradicated.”
“My experience with HELP has shown me that with very little effort, we can make enormous changes in people’s lives. I had an experience with one client, a homeless man in New York who could not receive any government assistance because he was deemed a ‘fugitive.’
This status is the result of a long ago arrest for possession of a small amount of marijuana in San Francisco. As these things happen, he never showed up for his arraignment and since then (over 10 years) there has been a bench warrant out for his arrest. No state or federal agency would provide him with financial assistance or access to other programs because of this relatively minor offense that he had not cleared up before leaving the west coast. I made a few phone calls over the course of 2 or 3 days – literally 30 minutes of my time in total, and a record from San Francisco Superior Court was located indicating that this bench warrant had expired and the charges dismissed.
I obtained this documentation and provided it to the client. With this he was able to apply for SSI benefits as well as permanent housing solutions here in New York City. Such a small amount of my time literally provided this man with the opportunity to get out of a shelter and regain control of his life. I just can’t imagine not participating in something that allows you to make such a palpable difference in someone’s life. Especially when it takes so little of your time.”
Trista Schroeder (NYC)
“My most memorable case involved a truck driver who lost his job after someone stole his car and amassed thousands of dollars in tickets. Unable to pay the tickets, he fell to the streets where he wallowed for more than 10 years. I was able to help him resolve his traffic court problems, his license was reinstated, and it didn’t cost him a penny. He’s now off the street and back to driving a truck.”
“Well, it does come and go, that sense that you are part of a profession, and not just a billing business. I experienced it full force today. I stayed with one of the HELP cases, a woman facing a misdemeanor criminal charge which was holding up her application to Section 8 public housing. She had a long history of prior arrests and convictions but has been incident free for years and attending counseling and treatment programs.
After four separate appearances, it was dismissed today ‘in the interest of justice.’ That phrase has never meant so much to me as it did this morning – – not about money, or making partner, or billing more hours – – simply helping someone out for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. Her comment when she learned it was dismissed: ‘I am blessed.’ And she is the one who is homeless.”
Christian Gannon (NYC)
“I represented a client that members of my firm met while volunteering at a homeless shelter. He had been arrested for possession of stolen property. Specifically, our client had agreed to cash a check for men whom he met on the street in exchange for cash. He needed money, so he agreed. When he went to cash the check, the bank teller called the police because the check had been reported as stolen. He was arrested and charged with possession of stolen property. This particular client had a number of prior offenses and arrests. I was asked to help him prepare for his initial appearance because we were concerned that his prior arrests and convictions would negatively affect his case.
He and I met at our office and discussed the event itself, his prior history, and the different things that could happen at his initial court appearance. We were hopeful that either the complaining witness would not attend court or that the prosecutor would be willing to drop the charges because my client had not done anything wrong and had not known that the check was stolen. Luckily, when we went to court, the witness did not come and the case was dropped.
Although I only worked briefly with this client, it was a rewarding experience. He was very appreciative of the little work that I did for him. That a little work on my part could mean so much to him was very inspiring. Giving him the opportunity to feel that he would not be taken advantage of in court and that he would be heard definitely reinforces my belief it is important to use my legal education to help those who otherwise may not be able to navigate the court system.”
Todd A. Solomon (Chicago)
“I am happy to inform you that, with your helpful advice, I was successful in assisting Davis Triplett to achieve the goals he articulated when I interviewed him through the HELP program. Mr. Triplett came to me to find out why $279 was being deducted from his monthly SSA checks for purported child support obligations in regards to his 23-24 year-old daughter. Prior to meeting with me, he met with a representative from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services who informed him that he owed approximately $16,000 in unpaid child support obligations.
Unfortunately, Mr. Triplett was unable to resolve the issue to his satisfaction. Through several letters to various Illinois and Mississippi agencies, and even more telephone calls, I was able to identify and resolve a problem with how Mr. Triplett’s child support payments were being processed. While Mr. Triplett’s child support obligations originated from an order entered by the court for Neshoba County, Mississippi, that court closed his case in 1997 and was not crediting him with payments he made since that time. It turned out that, because his daughter was an adult and most of the $16,000 was interest, the balance of Mr. Triplett’s debt could therefore be forgiven, and the supervisor I spoke with at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was willing to do so.
The deductions from Mr. Triplett’s SSA checks will stop in May or June, and he will be sent a check for any amount that is deducted from this point going forward (SSA takes some time to catch up). Mr. Triplett came in to thank me this morning, and he was very appreciative of what we were able to do for him. Thank you very much for your helpful advice on how to handle this matter, and thank you for setting up and coordinating GT’s participation in the HELP program.”
Jason B. Elster (Chicago – Greenberg Traurig, LLP)
“I was nominated by the law school for an award with Equal Justice Works called the Exemplary Public Service Award and I found out recently that I won. The award is based on my work with H.E.L.P. specifically but my other public interest work was also taken into account. I feel so honored to have been selected for the award but H.E.L.P. has been a team effort since the beginning. … It was only through Rachel Sauer, who was the Public Interest Law Group President at the time when the project was just getting started, that I was able to take an active role with Hartford H.E.L.P. Bob, Joyce, Ndidi and Alexis, you all as well as Lahny Silva, are the ones that really made H.E.L.P. a success and I am so honored to be a part of that success. So thank you to all of you for allowing me to play this part in H.E.L.P.”
Jessica H. Stein (Connecticut – Law Student, University of Connecticut Law School)