Every night in Maryland 4,000 United States Military Veterans sleep on a street scarce with foot traffic; or in a car crammed with their meager possessions; or in a shelter filled with a morsel of the 9,600+ homeless persons in the state.
Homelessness is a cold reality for approximately 196,000 of America’s warriors. But numerous attorneys, some in their “second season of legal service,” banded together to warm those bitter nights in Maryland, where one in every three homeless person is a veteran.
John Carroll Weiss, Jr., finished his naval tour of the Pacific theater during WWII in June 1946, and today this chair of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Senior Lawyer Section is answering the call to serve again.
Attorneys of all ages attend the 1st Annual Veterans' Legal Assistance Conference including National Guard Major Tom Barnard, 35, (left foreground), Joe Kaufman, 79, and John Carroll Weiss, Jr., 83 (right foreground)
“I didn’t realize it was such a big problem,” says Weiss, his defined jaw and broad shoulders announcing military service, yet his silver-hawk hair, bow tie and plaid jacket proclaiming Southern gentleman. “In my day you were just set free, so to speak. We didn’t have the problems of present-day veterans – the drugs, the homelessness.”
Weiss, 83, and his fellow emeritus attorneys were recruited by MSBA’s Special Committee on Military Law, as a part of an American Bar Association’s Veterans Advocacy Pro Bono Project grant the Section received, to attend the 1st Annual Veterans’ Legal Assistance Conference and subsequent training session on April 17, 2009.
The grant included $5,000 and is intended to create a program where emeritus attorneys take on veterans’ cases pro bono. It was awarded to four different states with pro bono practice procedures in place for retired lawyers.
Returning soldiers are often unaware of the benefits they are due upon completing their service, including pro bono legal access, family and financial support, and rent/landlord fee assistance. At the same time, veterans are beleaguered with issues ranging from poor credit and housing history, minimal income, and a criminal record.
“Homelessness and incarceration are two sides of the same coin,” said Brigadier General and U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland Judge Frederic N. Smalkin at the Conference.
And Maryland’s coin is weighted like a lead balloon.
The Old Line State, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, has more homeless veterans than Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Delaware combined. It ranks eighth in the country.
Furthermore, according to Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) Executive Director Antonia Fasanelli, a Baltimore City Homeless Census in January 2009 reported 287 veterans without steady residences – a 280 percent increase since the 2007 census. Presently, the Baltimore City Detention Center does not collect the military status of their inmates; however, the Baltimore County Detention Center reports that, as of March 16, 2009, 77 inmates were veterans, the oldest born in 1937 and the youngest in 1988.
“If you can fund the war, you can fund the warrior,” chided Kimberly Ross, Staff Director for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, at the conference.
Today’s economy can shoulder some blame for the uncertain future the new generation of fighters face after returning from the Middle East, but that “Welcome Home” obstacle is nothing new for America’s Veterans.
Following the Civil War, fighters suffered from “soldier’s heart”, a term used to describe a soldier’s struggle to readjust to society. It was later called “shell shock” and it’s now identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“They go from Baghdad to Baltimore in 24 hours,” Baltimore County’s Code Enforcement Hearing Officer, Meg Ferguson, stated at the Conference. “They still have sand on their boots from Baghdad when they get home.”
“Veterans really need people being around who can help find all their resources,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney and Maryland National Guard Major Tom Barnard.
Baltimore-based HPRP, along with the Pro Bono Resource Center and University of Maryland School of Law, began training pro bono attorneys on cases for homeless Veterans in June 2008.
“No one was providing legal assistance on Veterans Affairs benefits cases,” says Fasanelli. “We knew this project would lead to a decrease in homelessness in Baltimore.”
Through the end of 2008, HPRP trained 23 volunteer attorneys, who assisted in 24 veterans cases. Attorneys spend no less than 20 hours on each case, says HPRP’s Director of Pro Bono Programs, Amelia Lazarus. And attorneys can meet their clients in their own offices, at the HPRP offices or at the clients’ shelters.
All attorneys are encouraged to volunteer, but they must attend an HPRP-approved training session and then apply for accreditation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which HPRP assists in processing. Once approved, volunteer attorneys receive a case. Lawyers will also need three Continuing Legal Education hours within the first year of accreditation. HPRP provides the CLE courses.
MSBA’s Military Law Committee, HPRP, PBRC, and UMD’s Health Law, and Leadership & Public Service Programs all contributed to funding the Veterans’ Legal Assistance Conference. The Military Law Committee’s $5,000 ABA grant covered the Veterans Affairs benefits afternoon training session.
“I am happy we are able to get involved and contribute,” wrote Military Law Committee co-chair Justin Browne in an e-mail, “but I am eager to continue building momentum and encouraging many more attorneys to get involved.”
Browne knew a year ago, as a senior at UMD School of Law, that he wanted the Committee to fight veteran homelessness. And a year later, Browne credits another UMD Law student, Noah Isserman, a Schweitzer fellow, as “the driving force behind this conference.”
The conference required all attorneys taking the afternoon training session to receive at least one pro bono case through HPRP. Though not all 70 attendants took the training session, the conference did produce a few who plan to defend against the bleak world America’s veterans experience after serving their country.
“I just hope I’ll be able to help somebody, that’s why I became a lawyer in the first place,” says Weiss, one of 13 to attend the training session. “I’ll do as many cases as I can.”