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Joe Surkiewicz: New legal outreach for rural homeless veterans

Homelessness among the nation’s veterans is down 24 percent since 2010, putting the Obama administration on track to meet its goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by 2015.

That good news, however, obscures a hidden problem: rural homeless veterans who lack access to legal assistance in filing for VA benefits.

“If you look at the numbers, compared to urban Maryland, rural Maryland has far fewer attorneys,” said Michael Stone, a University of Baltimore School of Law 2013 Legal Apprentice Fellow working at the Homeless Persons Representation project in Baltimore. “So there’s little access to pro bono services.”

Homeless veterans in rural areas “are kind of invisible,” Stone added. “But in Cecil County, for example, about 50 percent of homeless people are veterans.”

Later this year, Stone will begin a new project at HPRP to address the dearth of pro bono attorneys outside the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan areas. The Rural Veterans Legal Assistance Project will use technology to bring pro bono legal help to homeless and at-risk veterans across the state.

“The trick is to make it as easy as possible to help them,” said Stone, who has the support of an Equal Justice Works fellowship funded by Lockheed Martin and the law firm of Hogan Lovells. “I’ll be going out to rural areas to give legal clinics, along with non-lawyer volunteers who will do intakes and scan relevant documents.”

Then it’s matter of connecting the clients with pro bono attorneys in the metro areas using Skype, minimizing the inconvenience that the distance between them would otherwise create.

“It’s simple. You’re replacing an attorney who would have had to drive out to a rural area with a computer and Skype connection,” Stone said. “It’s the same meeting, but without the burdensome travel.”

While using Internet video technology to assist rural veterans is new in Maryland, other states have successfully used it.

“In Minnesota, for example, a big state with lots of rural areas, they’ve reached out to rural Indian reservations and the exurbs, connecting with attorneys in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Stone said. “They’re having success. Our program will be very similar.”

While the system could be used for any kind of rural pro bono outreach — “Minnesota does everything from landlord/tenant to bankruptcy,” Stone said — the need to help veterans get their legal benefits is acute.

Nationally, a growing number of veterans are returning to civilian life with disabling physical and mental health challenges. Nearly half of men and 67 percent of women who served in recent wars were diagnosed with mental illnesses such as PTSD and adjustment, mood, and personality disorders.

In addition, veterans returning from those wars are being diagnosed with traumatic brain injury at a rate nearly two to three times higher than veterans of past wars. Without access to treatment for service-related conditions, pension benefits, and other support to which they are entitled, veterans are at high risk for homelessness.

In fact, more than 67,000 veterans remain homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Complicating things even more, not all veterans are entitled to veterans benefits.

“There are requirements like length of time served, whether the injury occurred during service, and whether it was in war time,” explained Katie Meyer Scott, HPRP’s director of pro bono services. “If you don’t meet the criteria, then Social Security is supposed to come in. But Social Security benefits are inferior and often don’t cover the cost of housing and other needs that our nation’s veterans have.”

Which is why the overwhelming majority of veterans seeking benefits need a lawyer.

To meet the demand, HPRP opened the Veterans Legal Assistance Clinic last summer to reach more veterans. The clinic, which operates out of the Veterans Administration Medical Annex in downtown Baltimore, is a collaborative project with the VA Maryland Health Care System, the Pro Bono Resource Center, and students from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and UB Law.

Staffed primarily by law students and pro bono lawyers, the clinic is in line with HPRP’s mission to go into the community and help people where they are already receiving other services. The new project to help rural veterans will work with the clinic.

“We’ll need pro bono volunteers to meet the capacity,” Stone said. “We’ll also be piggybacking on the model of our VA clinic in Baltimore that we already run and use its list of pro bono attorneys.”

HPRP offers free training to help private lawyers get accredited to make VA benefits claims. “After you’re accredited, you can do all VA benefits cases, with the potential for fees,” Stone noted. “It’s also great PR for a firm. Homeless veterans are a hot issue right now.”

The training consists of watching a video that can be accessed from any internet connection and then filling out a form from the VA. “It’s just like taking a CLE,” Stone said.

HPRP also provides support after a volunteer is assigned a case.

“We’re here to assist pro bono attorneys who take cases with substantive questions,” Stone said. “Also, if the client can’t get hold of her attorney, we can give her updates. We’re here as a resource for the pro bono attorney.”

For more information or to volunteer, call HPRP at 410/685-6589, ext. 14.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected]