Think about the number of homeless people you've seen on the streets. If you've seen more than three, there’s a high chance at least one of them is a veteran. Our 2014 Social Innovator, Veterans Legal Services (VLS) is working to change those numbers.
VLS is a nonprofit organization that provides free and accessible legal aid services to homeless and at-risk veterans to promote self-sufficiency, stability and financial security. Chosen on the “Expanding Opportunities and Improving Services for Veterans in Massachusetts” social issue track, VLS is changing life outcomes for veterans around Greater Boston.
Anna Schleelein Richardson and Sarah Roxburgh are the Co-Executive Directors of VLS, which was originally founded in 1991 as a student organization at Boston College Law School. A group of students began the club after noticing that traditional legal aid services for low-income people were not meeting the needs of veterans, whose issues require specific resources and knowledge. As the organization grew, it expanded into the 501(c)3 nonprofit that it is today; however, law students from all six Boston area law schools continue to volunteer with VLS, assisting veterans during their walk-in clinics at homeless shelters.
The need for accessible free legal aid services for veterans is extensive. Unlike in criminal cases, the state does not have to provide an attorney to someone who cannot afford one in civil cases. Yet as Richardson points out, “Civil cases can involve serious issues like whether you get to see your children, or if you have a roof over your head.” Root Cause’s research
has shown, along with numerous other studies, that having a lawyer or some form of advocacy in a case can make a huge difference in the outcome – a difference as substantial as keeping someone off the streets or continuing to see their children.
Nonetheless, for those who cannot afford a lawyer when dealing with civil cases, their options are bleak without the help of organizations like VLS. This is, perhaps, even more true for veterans, whose legal resources are limited and who have greater risk factors working against them. In fact, the need for legal services for veterans was ranked higher than the need for housing in a nationwide survey done by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs
. Richardson explains, “Someone who doesn’t work with this group – doesn’t have the cultural competency with this population – wouldn’t know specific rules and regulations that apply to these veteran-specific issues and would have a really difficult time serving them.” Despite this need, VLS remains the only legal aid organization in Greater Boston whose mission is to serve veterans.
Veterans’ legal needs also are complicated by the population’s high-risk factors, which can perpetuate the cycles of unemployment and homelessness. These factors can include physical trauma, mental health illnesses and economic challenges, which are often a direct result of their service. Richardson comments, “It puts veterans in a really precarious position where one thing goes wrong and they’re out on the streets in many instances.” She describes a fairly common situation where a veteran loses his job due to mental health problems. At the same time, he’s facing difficulties accessing his benefits, which leave him with little to no income and unable to pay his bills. As a result, he gets evicted and finds himself out on the streets-unable to figure out his legal issues and incapable of returning to work. Chances are, this isn’t the first time either; veterans often face continuous difficulties with being able to live independently.
When veterans find themselves in this cycle of homelessness and have been turned away from other legal aid services, they typically have one of two options: do nothing, or try to handle it on their own. Neither scenario is ideal. If they ignore the problem, they will likely only make it worse and perpetuate the cycle. If they try to figure it out by themselves, they have a complicated task ahead. Richardson comments that not only is dealing with these problems tricky enough on their own, but then having to understand procedural rules like how the court system works can make it seem near impossible.
Richardson herself can attest to the difficulties of trying to navigate the legal system without an attorney. In law school, she was aiding a young man who was getting medically retired from the military because of serious injuries and found the process more formidable than she would have imagined. “Between the two of us, we probably had at least ten years of higher education, and the fact that it was a challenge for us to get him through that system and get him what he needed was really eye-opening for me on a personal level because I know not everyone has the resources that we did,” describes Richardson. This experience inspired her to help other veterans so they wouldn’t have to face these legal issues alone.
Through the process of the Social Innovation Forum (SIF)
, Richardson hopes to expand VLS’ reach and build a more sustainable model from which to grow. “We’ve been at a point in the last six months or so that we’re really ready to take this organization further and build it beyond what it has been to date,” says Richardson. She would love to see the organization expand geographically, noting their unique approach to providing services allows for their program to be easily integrated into other locations outside of the Boston area. For the time being though, Richardson hopes to see the in-kind resources available to them from SIF put to good use. “I want to see us taking this investment of the SIF process and using it to build our volunteer attorney program and build to the point where we can service 100 more veterans next year. And another 100 veterans the year after that.”
To reach these goals – both long term and short term – Richardson admits they’ll need some key investments. But she’s confident in the positive return these potential investments will bring. “What we’re doing is yielding really cost-effective results,” Richardson explains, “We’re helping people transition from homelessness by removing barriers that are standing in their way. At the same time, we’re helping people avoid homelessness by stabilizing their situation if it’s at risk.” Not only are they improving the outcomes for these veterans, but they’re also simultaneously saving taxpayers and the state money. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the cost of someone living in homelessness is more than $40,000 a year. Yet for less than $2,000, VLS can often help someone avoid homelessness entirely. This means VLS can help improve the lives of approximately 20 people for the cost of supporting one homeless person.
While their cost-effective approach alone makes a compelling draw to their value, it’s perhaps more important to remember who the population is that they are backing. “At the end of the day, what we're doing is providing a service to a population that’s already served every one of us in this country,” Richardson remarks, “We believe they deserve better than living on the street.”