Homeless people who need legal help to obtain disability benefits and other social services will soon be able to consult with a lawyer at Health Care for the Homeless’ headquarters in downtown Baltimore.
Attorney Gabriela Sevilla recently began a two-year fellowship awarded by Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit, to oversee an arrangement between Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) and the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) to provide free legal representation. Sevilla’s fellowship is sponsored by Pfizer Inc.
Until now, clients at HCH who require legal aid have been directed to HPRP, a half-mile away — a prohibitive distance for many of HCH’s most severely disabled and vulnerable clients, some of whom deal with mental illness. These clients often don’t make it to their appointments at HPRP, said Chauna Brocht, director of supportive services at HCH, who said there’s long been a need to have a lawyer in the health care center.
“With this project, we’re looking forward to serving those vulnerable people who have a relationship with (HCH) and might have difficulty building a relationship with a lawyer,” Brocht said. “Now we can say, ‘Here, we want to introduce you to one of our team members who’s a lawyer,’ as opposed to sending you to a scary office you know nothing about.”
Under the new partnership, officially called the Disability Representation Education Advocacy Medical-Legal Partnership (DREAM), Sevilla will work out of the HCH building to provide legal advice and help homeless people apply for public benefits. Michelle Salomon Madaio, a senior lawyer at HPRP who’s been mentoring Sevilla, said it’s hoped the partnership will begin accepting clients early in 2020.
Sevilla, a recent graduate of the Howard University School of Law, said childhood experiences inspired her to become a lawyer and to help the homeless; while she was growing up in New Jersey, her family relied on public assistance, she said.
“A lot of times these people have hit rock bottom and it’s more than just legal representation,” she said of HCH’s homeless clients and the organization’s role in helping them. “You’re also trying to bring back some hope for them.”
Madaio noted that homeless people often don’t provide all required information in their initial application for benefits and are quickly denied, a problem that Sevilla and other staff will tackle.
“When you apply, Social Security will get all these records, but they don’t really talk about how a person’s disability is creating functional limitations, so they just deny it,” Madaio said. “The examiner might say, ‘Oh you have HIV, but lots of people work with HIV.’ It’s not explaining how for you, maybe your mental health or major depression is affecting your ability to work, or preventing you from getting out of bed.”
Jill Williams, an HPRP board member who was previously a client seeking help obtaining disability benefits, said having a lawyer at Health Care for the Homeless would “absolutely” help people in situations like hers.
“It’s a one-stop shop where you can get help and an attorney at the same time,” Williams said.