Legal Beat: The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless - Facebook

A few weeks ago, a Street Sense vendor put a call out to DC attorneys to write a column geared to homeless issues. In an effort to understand these issues, I had the opportunity to attend a class sponsored by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. The class introduced about 40 volunteers to the program, whose goal is to make justice a reality for those who struggle with homelessness and poverty.

The WLCH provides free legal advice every work day across the District. These clinics are located at the following places on the following days: Monday: UPO Pete Greene Community Center; 2907 MLK Jr. Ave. SE (Congress Heights Metro); Monday: N Street Village, 1333 N St. NW (Mount Vernon Sq. Metro); Tuesday: So Others Might Eat, 60 O St. NW (NOMA/Gallaudet Metro); Wednesday: Miriam’s Kitchen, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW (Foggy Bottom Metro); Wednesday: Family Resource Center, 920 Rhode Island Ave. NE (Rhode Island Metro); Thursday: Thrive DC, 1525 Newton St. NW (Columbia Heights Metro); and Friday: Unity Health Care, 425 2nd St. NW (Judiciary Square Metro).

The clinics are staffed for an hour each day by a rotating group of 8 staff attorneys and 250 volunteer attorneys and paralegals. The volunteers come from big firms and small. Many also work for the federal government and some are in house counsel. Volunteers specialize in all areas of the law, from entertainment law to securities.

The training focused on issues that commonly arise at the clinics such as shelter and housing benefits, and Social Security benefits. The clinics also help clients get proper identification (birth certificates and I.D. Cards) and assist with consumer complaints (collection, garnishment, identity theft, credit reports, access to medical care, student loans and storage facilities). Finally, the clinic takes cases involving street rights, private property and police complaints.

Despite the diversity of the cases taken and the diversity of the volunteer attorneys’ experiences, the clinic does not take cases involving immigration, employment (wrongful termination), family law (divorce, custody), criminal defense, eviction cases or small claims or fee generating cases. However, the WHLC is aware of other legal clinics and law firms that do this work and refers these cases out for review. As a result, there is really no issue that the clinic cannot provide guidance.

During our orientation we had one of the board members speak to us about his 25 year experience as a volunteer attorney. A communications and corporate attorney, he noted that volunteer attorneys can make a big difference in a client’s life with relatively little professional effort – rather than years of litigation in a typical corporate matter, most matters at the clinic are resolved in a few months, and some are resolved shortly after the initial intake session.

This is not to say that the issues facing clinic clients are simple. Indeed, one of the clinic’s missions is to advocate for policy change and volunteer attorneys are encouraged to speak out at public meetings and articulate to our civic leaders the issues facing the clinic’s clients. The clinic is also not afraid of taking on class action matters and has had some success in obtaining restraining orders against various defendants.

All of this makes volunteering at the clinic a worthwhile experience for young and old attorneys with various levels of experience. The very able staff attorneys provide guidance and support every step of a case. The clinic also provides files and intake forms to get the case going and has a vast forms library to assist with many of the issues that the clients commonly face.

Volunteer attorneys are expected to attend one clinic a month and to take on an assigned case until it is finished. For those too busy to give their time, the clinic also accepts tax deductible donations. As was clear at the seminar, it is always in need of more paper, name tags and other office supplies.

In exchange, volunteer attorneys gain an understanding of the issues facing an underprivileged segment of the District, get an opportunity to develop their practice and gain new skills, plus meet other like minded professionals to share ideas, consult and work with on other projects. In all, the WLCH is an excellent resource for the Street Sense vendors and an opportunity for some of Street Sense’s barred patrons to give back.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.