To mark the end of National Pro Bono Week, we’d like to thank our amazing volunteer attorneys, whose steadfast advocacy on behalf of low and no income residents allows the Legal Clinic to provide representation to thousands of clients each year and to engage in transformative systemic litigation. As a direct result of the contributions of these attorneys and their dedication to pro bono work, our most vulnerable neighbors are able to access justice in the District of Columbia.
The following was written by one of our outstanding volunteer attorneys, Paul Lee.
Representing the homeless or near homeless is not easy. It’s not glamorous. It can be downright frustrating. So why would anyone do this work, and, on top of that, do it for free? For one reason, it’s incredibly rewarding to help a family get a grasp on the most basic of all functions—living. But here’s another reason: because as challenging as it can be to represent people on the brink of homelessness, it’s a thousand times more exasperating to be the single mother living behind a church with her 18-month-old child as the temperature each night gets colder than the last. Or to be the woman struggling with bi-polar disorder, who gets kicked out of a housing program because she just can’t seem to “play by the rules.” Or to be the undocumented family about to lose their home, that can’t comprehend the English-only pamphlet on emergency shelters. These are the people who have nowhere to turn, no refuge in which to find safety, and almost no one to lend them a helping hand.
These are all clients that my firm, Dechert LLP, has represented through the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless’ legal intake site at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (FRC). The FRC is where any family facing homelessness in the District can go to apply for shelter and other services. They sit patiently in the waiting room, sometimes for six, eight, twelve hours at a time, hoping that a spot at DC General, the former hospital now converted into a family shelter, will open up. That spot often never opens up, and the family must return the next day to give it another shot. That is what happened to one of our clients, a single mother who slept behind a Catholic church in Southeast DC every night over the summer, often with her 18-month old child. They’d ride the bus as long as they could to avoid getting picked up by the police for loitering. Recently, as the temperature got colder and colder each night, that mother came to FRC desperate for shelter. After weeks of being told there was nothing available, she met us through intake and we were able to advocate with DC government officials on her behalf. She was finally placed at DC General with her daughter. Dealing with bureaucracy and lack of space was a tough obstacle, but one that would have been virtually impossible to overcome without pro bono counsel.
We also represented a woman at a shelter who suffered from severe bi-polar disorder. Her mood swings would be marginally controlled by medication, but she would tell me about her “bad days” when she fought so hard to “keep it together,” some days successfully, other days not. She had trouble keeping her room at the housing program clean, and sometimes had abrasive encounters with fellow residents. The housing program, which was fully aware of her mental health needs, did nothing to work with her. Instead of helping her figure out what medication dosage was right for her, or giving her an extra day to get her possessions out of the hallway, they wrote out citations and penalties and eventually tried to force her out onto the streets. I represented her at a hearing before the DC Office of Administrative Hearings, where my client nervously, but eloquently explained her struggle with bi-polar disorder, and how she wanted so badly to do her best but on some days, it was just too hard. Even on the day of the trial, I could see my client breathing deeply and gripping the edge of table behind which we were sitting, doing everything we practiced in our prep sessions to make sure she did not lose her cool in front of the judge. We were able to buy her enough time for her to move into another apartment, one that allows her more flexibility and freedom to live in peace.
Finally, I recall another intake session where I met a Hispanic man sitting in the lobby with his 8-year-old son. I quickly ascertained that the man was undocumented and spoke only Spanish, but the boy was fluent in English. They were staring blankly at a pamphlet about emergency shelter options that had been given to them by the front desk staff at FRC. The father could not read (in English or in Spanish, I later found out). The son, remarkably bright for his age, could pronounce the pamphlet’s words in English, but didn’t understand what complex terms like “landlord-tenant” and “hypothermia” meant. The staff had asked the boy to “translate” it for his father, and then have his father sign the back. I asked the boy if he had any siblings, and he said he had a younger sister, who was seven. I asked the precocious boy where his sister was, and he said she was in school. I then asked him why she was in school that day and he was not. He looked up at me, with a look in his eyes that was somehow both proud and sad, and said, “My dad told me I had to come help him talk to the homeless shelter people.” My heart just about dropped on the floor – this courageous kid was missing out on his education because his dad wanted him to help him navigate the convoluted government systems designed to keep his entire family from becoming homeless. This was an unbelievable responsibility placed on his small shoulders. I helped translate the pamphlet for them and gave them our business card. The family did not have a functioning phone, so I told them to call me when they got a chance. They never did. To this day, I still wonder if that family was able to survive, find a place, and avoid becoming homeless. I know for sure that the little boy would have given it his all to help his family. What I don’t know is if it was enough.