Unsexy, Unglamorous Legal Needs Deserve More Pro Bono Attention

The Legal Services area at Project Homeless Connect 2014.

One Roof has identified legal issues as being a common threat to the housing status of many of our clients — or else, legal issues have perpetuated, caused, or resulted from homelessness.  The tie between homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system is undeniable, and quite often systemic and unjust.  

Every year, one of the most utilized services at our annual event, Project Homeless Connect, is legal services.  We are pleased to say that because of the meaningful, life-changing  services (but especially legal services) that we offer at Project Homeless Connect, Birmingham now has its very own homeless court.  This is something that could not have resulted without seeing the very real need for this resource in our community through Project Homeless Connect, nor without seeing the drastic positive impact that access to quality legal services has had on the ability of our clients to get into their own home. 

In the past year, One Roof has also aided in the reentry process for individuals with a disability who are being released from prison, and who, upon release, will have nowhere else to go.  In the past year, we have started SOAR for Reentry, which aids disabled inmates in obtaining disability benefits so that they will not become homeless upon their release.  With SSI or SSDI benefits for this overlooked population, we know that we can expect to see persons released from prison leading healthier, more independent lives, and hopefully lower recidivism rates.

We wanted to share this blog post with you, written by Lisa Borden, who annually has coordinated the attorneys who assist our clients at Project Homeless Connect, and is responsible for coordinating a regular homeless court (a court and appeals process specifically to aid people whose charges keep them from getting into housing).   We appreciate Ms. Borden’s work, and this is a fantastic blog piece about that relationship between the criminal justice system and homelessness.  

Unsexy, Unglamorous Legal Needs Deserve More Pro Bono Attention

by Lisa Borden

During the time I have been managing Baker Donelson’s pro bono programs, I’ve been impressed and gratified to see lawyers and bar associations and groups across the country step up en masse to tackle some very important legal issues. The death penalty is an issue that has received a great deal of attention for many years, and more recently the focus on immigration has increased dramatically. Civil rights cases, including issues like marriage equality, voting rights and human trafficking have made the news, and helping veterans is a mainstay. I’ve gotten involved in many of these issues myself, especially death penalty cases. 

But I find myself increasingly frustrated. Why? Because in nearly a decade of working on a daily basis with low income communities – homeless people, former inmates, people in rehab, but also just generally what we lawyers think of as indigent populations – I have come to realize that there’s a gigantic, over-arching problem that never gets much organized attention. Low income communities are plagued with unresolved minor criminal or quasi-criminal matters, like a persistent low grade fever that never quite clears up and saps their energy every day. Please don’t misunderstand – low income people commit no more petty crimes and traffic offenses than do people with resources. Lord knows they are charged more, though, and once charged they lack all the tools the rest of us have to clear things up. So they drag the charges and their consequences around interminably, a dead weight that slowly sinks them. 

No lawyer to make it go away or give you good advice?  Just plead guilty like everyone in the courtroom says, and be branded a petty criminal forever. Can’t pay the fine right now? Go on “probation,” add a monthly fee for being poor, and then get hounded for money every week. Oh, and we’ll suspend your driver’s license until you finally pay it off (plus reinstatement fee). Miss a payment or two? Can’t report to the fake probation office every time it is demanded because you have no transportation, no child care, or can’t get off work again for fear of losing your minimum wage job? Here’s a warrant for your arrest.

People’s lives are literally being ruined every day by these legal issues, many of which aren’t even that complicated. So why is it that there’s no massive, coordinated push by lawyers, no community of non-profits, to help? Best I can figure, it’s because of a lack of public understanding, and therefore public sympathy, for the victims of this particular plague. If the public does not care, or thinks the victims are to blame for their own troubles, then there is no political or PR upside to any broad effort to address the issue. The funding provided by Congress to the Legal Services Corporation comes with all kinds of strings, including restricting LSC funded organizations to working only on certain types of civil cases. Although there is a welcome new focus on public defenders, thanks largely to the wonderful Gideon’s Promise, there usually are no public defenders appointed to represent people who are charged with traffic offenses or petty misdemeanors that carry (in theory) no threat of jail time. Most private criminal defense attorneys have no interest in, or can’t afford to, deal with these kinds of cases.  And overall, law firm lawyers and state and local bar associations are just not getting excited about this problem. It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t involve complex or high profile litigation. Worse, it involves helping people that the general public regards as undeserving criminals. Making their problems a cause with which we’re identified would be bad for business. It would play into and exacerbate the public’s already dubious view of lawyers. We want pro bono to make them like us better, right? 

Recently, the issue of criminal justice debt has caught on a bit. Some nonprofits and law firms have become interested in handling the civil litigation needed to challenge some of the atrocious and unconstitutional practices being used in many jurisdictions. But somehow, someone has to figure out how to make the crushing burden on the individual caught up in the machinery of petty offenses a cause célèbre. People who have no resources need to show up for court and find that there is someone there to help them. People who have been struggling under this burden for years need to be able to find help to get fines remitted and warrants recalled. There are some real heroes out there, lawyers who expend valuable time and effort coming to the rescue of one person at a time.  But there aren’t nearly enough.  I hope that more lawyers, bar associations and nonprofit organizations will see fit to begin addressing the immediate problem of the individuals whose daily existence is being made so difficult. The arc of moral litigation is long, and many people simply can’t wait for it to bend toward justice. 

Volunteer Now to help end homelessness
Get help addressing a homeless situation
One Roof Events