The challenges facing Maryland’s veterans persist long after they return from battle. One such difficulty is navigating the disability and pension benefits labyrinth. Absent legal assistance, veterans with a right to these benefits often fail to overcome the complexity of the application process, resulting in dire consequences, including homelessness.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of homeless Maryland veterans increased from 3,100 in 2005 to over 4,000 in 2007. This same study shows that there are more homeless veterans in Maryland than any of its surrounding states and the District of Columbia. In Baltimore City alone, homeless veterans comprised one third of the homeless population in 2005.
more homeless veterans in Maryland than any of its surrounding states.
To reverse this trend and prevent future increases as scores of service members return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans need the support of battle-buddies on the home front. According to the Maryland State Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 44 percent of Maryland veterans receive assistance while applying for benefits. Recent collaborative efforts, however, are heeding the call of duty.
In June 2008, the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP), in collaboration with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC), the University of Maryland School of Law Schweitzer Fellow and Director of Pro Bono & Public Service Initiatives, and Saul Ewing, LLP, created a small project training volunteer attorneys to represent homeless veterans in Baltimore City in claims for service-related disability and pension benefits. To date, 23 attorneys have been trained and accredited, and 24 homeless veterans have received advice and/or representation. In addition to this project, private firms, such as Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, are providing similar services through other programs.
MSBA’s newly-formed Special Committee on Military Law (SCML) has joined forces with HPRP, PBRC and the University of Maryland School of Law Schweitzer Fellow and Director of Pro Bono & Public Service Initiatives to expand these efforts. The group has applied for funding through the American Bar Association’s 2009 Enterprise Fund Veterans Advocacy Pro Bono Project. The Project awards up to four grants to establish pilot programs to provide legal assistance to veterans through a state emeritus attorney pro bono program. The group seeks to establish a statewide Maryland Emeritus Attorney Veterans Initiative (MEAVI) to conduct CLE-compliant trainings and provide free legal representation under HPRP supervision to low-income veterans, primarily those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The partners involved in this project are sponsoring a conference this spring at the University of Maryland School of Law. The event will explore a variety of veterans-related issues from the state and federal perspective, and will offer free training on handling veterans’ benefits claims.
The group plans additional outreach and education efforts. For example, SCML and its collaborators have established a relationship with the Warrior in Transition Unit at Fort Meade, Maryland, which assists soldiers’ transition to civilian life. Additional outreach efforts are aimed at shelters in Baltimore City and setting up referral networks with Baltimore Homeless Services, Health Care for the Homeless, the Department of Social Services, and the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training. HPRP and its collaborative partners will also work closely with the Outreach and Education Coordinator of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that information about free legal resources is contained in newsletters, on its website and through other means of communication.
Finally, SCML and HPRP are teaming up to create “Know Your Rights” brochures for veterans and attorneys. They will distribute the pamphlets to shelters and transitional housing programs around the State, as well as through partnerships with military installations, and make them available to local attorneys. HPRP is also establishing a toll-free hotline number for veterans to contact HPRP and obtain an intake over the phone.
In sum, Maryland’s veterans continue to face formidable obstacles, and given the expected increasing economic turmoil, the threat of continued increased homelessness looms for those who have already made significant sacrifices. Maryland attorneys have an opportunity to thwart this negative trend and to assure that this nation keeps its commitment to those who have served. In the process, lawyers can learn new skills and cultivate new professional relationships. There are many opportunities to pitch in beyond the programs described herein. Several veterans will be ineligible for veterans benefits or in need of other types of non-veterans related benefits. Some exceed financial eligibility requirements for pro bono services, but still require reasonably-priced assistance. Being a part of the mission to support Maryland’s veterans requires only a willingness to serve.
Justin Browne, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, is co-chair of the MSBA Military Law Committee and an associate at Whitney & Bogris, LLP. Antonia K. Fasanelli is Executive Director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc.