June 11, 2006

Getting a lawyer is probably not the first thought that pops up as good advice for the homeless.

As it turns out, it could be the best.

Sure, food, shelter and medical care are the priorities for homeless people, but getting those things often means navigating bureaucratic mazes that can be daunting to anyone. Fulfilling those needs is especially for someone who has no phone, no home and no way to get from one office to another as well as to keep track of the mountain of paperwork or make the seemingly endless round of appointments.
Then there are the parking tickets that accumulate for people who live in their cars or the illegal-lodging tickets that build up for those who sleep on the street.

Collect enough tickets and it's off to jail. And forget about that critical interview with the social worker who decides whether to approve or reject a claim for Social Security, medical care or other benefits.

A handful of legal agencies and volunteer lawyers try to help, but they said the public and even many of their colleagues don't realize there is a need for such services.

A typical situation, said some of those who work with the homeless, is what's happening to a homeless man who identified himself as Jesse James Armstrong and came looking for help at homeless clinics at Pacific Beach United Methodist Church.

“I'm hurting all the time now,” said Armstrong, who is in constant pain in part from injuries suffered in “a little car wreck” 18 years ago.

He said a doctor at one of the clinics told him he needs spinal surgery.

Armstrong's speech is muddled. His eyes are red. Sometimes he drinks too much, maybe to ease the pain because he can't get anything else, said Jack Dailey, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

Dailey runs a clinic for disabled homeless people under a two-year grant that is about to run out. Armstrong wants a better life.

“I'm trying, I'm trying. That's about all I can say,” Armstrong said.

There are medical services through the county that could help Armstrong. But on his own, he doesn't know where to go, who to see, what forms to fill out or how to complete them.

That is where Dailey came in. He told Armstrong to go to a North Park clinic where he would be screened for county emergency medical benefits, and Dailey gave him two bus tokens to get there and back. Dailey also said he would start the paperwork to get Armstrong more long-term medical help through the county as well as Social Security disability benefits.

“There are resources out there,” Dailey said. “It's just a matter of getting these folks to them.”

Dailey said he often is met with disbelief when he tells people that he is a lawyer for the homeless.

“They ask me, 'So do they have to sue, and for what?',” Dailey said. “There's no concept of the legal difficulties faced by people either homeless or on the road to homelessness.”

Even when benefits are approved, keeping them is a challenge, and Dailey often steps in to handle appeals when someone's benefits are cut off because he or she was in the hospital or in jail and missed an appointment.

The San Diego County Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the San Diego Bar Association, in March started a fund to help provide legal services for the homeless, using a $100,000 contribution from the San Diego law firm of Majors & Fox. The $100,000 is to be distributed over three years.

Foundation Executive Director Briana Wagner said the foundation quickly learned that $100,000 wouldn't go far toward meeting the legal needs of the homeless.

“We could easily distribute three times that money each year,” Wagner said.

Using the Majors & Fox contribution as seed money, Wagner said the foundation is trying to raise more money to help keep and expand programs like the one Dailey runs through Legal Aid.

“Absent legal representation on a whole host of issues – criminal, civil what have you – the folks who live on the streets can't participate in society,” said Steve Binder, a county deputy public defender who established a homeless court in 1989 to deal with minor criminal matters affecting the homeless.

“The bulk of what homeless folks get is what's known as public nuisance offenses,” Binder said. “They could range from anything like illegal lodging to drinking in public and peeing in public. Things you and I do in private homes they have to do outside.”

Those legal problems often keep someone from getting off the streets, said Amy Fitzpatrick, executive director of San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program.

Fitzpatrick's agency provides lawyers doing pro bono work to homeless people who need help with issues such as child support, child custody, domestic violence and landlord-tenant disputes. The agency also runs a free legal clinic for people with AIDS or HIV and helps people who have trouble getting or maintaining benefits to which they are entitled.

It can be a vicious circle, she said.

People out of work can't pay child support. If they can't pay child support, they can't get a driver's license. If they can't get a driver's license, they have trouble finding a job and getting to the social service agencies that can help them get off the street, she said.

“You could pick up any homeless person on the street and almost all of them have a legal problem,” Fitzpatrick said

Good, Now that I know they have legal services I don't feel bad about throwing them in Jail.....