A partnership between two Indianapolis nonprofits will provide for the first time ongoing legal services to homeless veterans working to become self-sufficient.
The Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation of Indiana Inc. and the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic have entered into an agreement that will dedicate an attorney to focus on untangling the legal issues that ensnare many homeless veterans at HVAF.
A group of attorneys and the HVAF began looking for ways to bring legal help to homeless veterans in the fall of 2012. They first put out a call for “good ideas” and then enlisted the help of a consultant to analyze the proposals that were submitted by other attorneys and legal service providers.
The effort reached a milestone July 11 when HVAF and the clinic signed the agreement during a special ceremony. At 4:14 pm July 11, Charles “Chuck” Haenlein, HVAF president and CEO, uncapped a fountain pen and Josh Abel, executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, retrieved a ball point pen from his coat pocket. Then the pair leaned over the conference table and signed four copies of the agreement.
Starting Aug. 1, attorney Brian Dunkel, a staff attorney at the clinic, will devote 20 hours per week to clients at HVAF. He will be a part of the agency’s treatment team, working directly with the caseworkers and other staff members to resolve the issues that are preventing veterans from finding permanent homes.
Trent Sandifur, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP and board member of HVAF, maintained that often the root cause of a veteran’s homelessness is a legal issue. For example, overdue child support could hinder a veteran’s ability to get a job and a suspended driver’s license could hamper a veteran from getting to and from a job.
On top of this, veterans may not be receiving the benefits they are entitled to because they get overwhelmed by the paperwork required by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We don’t want any of our clients in a situation where they become frustrated and then give up,” Sandifur said. “The important role the attorney plays is being the advocate and helping to navigate the bureaucracy in addressing their legal needs.”
The agreement runs for one year. Steven Benz, HVAF board chair and associate general counsel at Eli Lilly & Co., encouraged the veterans at HVAF to give feedback on their experiences working with the attorney. Their input will be used, he said, to make the program better.
If the partnership is successful, Barnes & Thornburg partner Bill Moreau believes it could become a model for other agencies serving the homeless. He said that while working to build a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Indianapolis during the Bart Peterson administration, he learned about the importance of delivering legal services to these individuals.
“I am completely convinced this is the right way to take the first step in this effort,” Moreau said. “The clinic will provide a very, very experienced attorney at relatively low financial risk to HVAF.”