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Groups partner to offer legal services to homeless veterans

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Finding legal services for homeless veterans took longer than expected, but attorneys spearheading the effort believe the solution they found will not only help former military personnel become self-sufficient but also has potential to become a model for other agencies serving the homeless.

In the fall of 2012, a group of Indianapolis lawyers working with the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation of Indiana Inc. put out a call for “good ideas.” They wanted suggestions on ways to provide ongoing assistance to help homeless veterans at HVAF overcome the legal issues that often hinder their ability to get a job and find housing.

homelessvets-15col.jpg At a special ceremony July 11, Charles Haenlein (left), of Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation of Indiana Inc., and Josh Abel, of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, signed the agreement that will provide ongoing legal services to homeless veterans at HVAF. (IL Photo/ Aaron P. Bernstein)

On July 11, HVAF took the final step in the process and signed an agreement with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, which will provide legal services to help the veterans.

The two nonprofits marked the milestone by holding a special signing ceremony at HVAF’s main facility. Several homeless veterans who attended the event gave a hearty round of applause when the signing was completed.

Steve Benz, HVAF board chair, told the HVAF clients that this agreement means they will no longer get passed around whenever they seek help with their legal entanglements.

Instead, they will only have to tell their story once to the attorney provided by the clinic. In turn, the attorney will be part of the treatment team and actively participate as these veterans regain their lives.

“I think we landed a tremendous partner,” Benz said of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. “They came to this program with such a level of enthusiasm.”

When the team of attorneys began the effort, they initially thought the solution would entail hiring a lawyer full time as part of HVAF’s staff. However, Bill Moreau, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, said that idea evolved as the responses to the request for “good ideas” arrived from other attorneys and legal service providers. Barnes & Thornburg handled this project from start to finish pro bono.

By entering into a partnership with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, HVAF will be able to get legal assistance to its veterans and get a better understanding of how great the need is, Moreau explained.

The agreement runs for one year at which time the partnership will be evaluated. Benz asked the HVAF veterans to provide feedback on the program. The partnering agencies and the attorneys want to hear their complaints and compliments so the legal services being provided can be improved.

Brian Dunkel, from the clinic, will become the project attorney for the partnership. He will go the HVAF offices once a week to meet with current and prospective clients.

The Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic has experience in partnering with other nonprofits. Josh Abel, executive director of the clinic, said his agency has learned from past attempts to help the homeless that working alongside other organizations is the most effective way to reach this population.

Through these other partnerships, the clinic attorneys have been able to go to where the homeless already receive some services. More important, Abel said, the lawyers can know the whole story and all the issues the individual is facing.

Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partner Trent Sandifur has donated his services to the veterans and was part of the effort to get stable legal services to HVAF.

This partnership, he said, will enable the treatment team to get to the root cause of a veteran’s homelessness. Having the attorney onboard will allow the staff to resolve the issues rather than just put a bandage on the problem.

As excited as he and his colleagues are about this partnership, he believes the HVAF clients will become equally enthusiastic.

“Most homeless veterans are just happy to have someone on their team to be an advocate,” Sandifur said. “They are so used to the system working against them.”•

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