Homeless Project enables attorneys to offer advice and guidance to shelter residents

February 11, 2015

Edna went into the makeshift office and asked for a will, a living will and a power of attorney.

Like anyone, she wanted the will to ensure her wishes were followed after her death, a living will so that she would not be kept alive by artificial interventions, and a power of attorney to give her caregiver the authority to make any critical decisions.

While her reasons for wanting the legal protections are common, her situation is not. Edna is homeless and disabled with few assets, little family and an uncertain future. In addition, she has no means to afford a lawyer to draft the papers.

Yet, there she was a few weeks ago, talking to attorney Scott Montross about what she wanted and why. And a couple of days later, Montross, partner at Montross Miller Muller Mendelson & Kennedy LLP, returned to the Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis with the documents in hand.

The pair described their relationship in terms that Edna may have never thought possible – he is her lawyer.

Residents in other homeless shelters in Indianapolis are receiving legal advice and guidance, like Edna, through the Homeless Shelter Project. The program, now administered by the Indianapolis Bar Association, sends pairs of attorneys to a handful of shelters around the city every three weeks to meet with residents needing help.

Homeless clients come with questions about a variety of legal entanglements, ranging from matters like divorce, child custody and parental rights to failure to pay child support, loss of a driver’s license and eviction. Often, the homeless clients want help with problems that fall outside the scope of legal remedy, so the attorneys reach for their reference books that list the other agencies and resources where the residents might find help.

Mostly, the attorneys provide answers and explanations, and they point the residents to the next step that needs to be taken. Sometimes, like Montross did, they will handle the legal work themselves.

“I don’t think the folks that volunteer for this program, I don’t think they could continue with the project without having a very deep and sincere interest in these folks who are disadvantaged,” Montross said.

The ability to trust

Volunteering for the project for the first time three years ago, Frost Brown Todd LLC managing associate Bryan Strawbridge was nervous, not knowing what to expect and worried he did not have the proper legal background. He soon found the residents primarily wanted to talk and to use him as a sounding board for advice.

One man came to Strawbridge saying his car had been repossessed and he did not understand why. Reading through the lease and discovering the vehicle was sold with an extremely high interest rate, Strawbridge had to break the bad news that since the man had missed some payments, he had no legal recourse to get the car back. It was a simple legal issue that any first-year law student could have figured out, Strawbridge said, and although the

man did not have his car, he did have an explanation.

Meeting with the lawyers and knowing these attorneys are there to help without expecting anything in return gives the shelter residents more than answers, said Betsy Whaley, vice president of programs and community collaboration with The Julian Center. The experience increases many residents’ ability to trust someone else.

Attorneys may not always see how they help, Whaley said, but their effort “does make a difference for the residents.”

The project also impacts the volunteering lawyers. Both Strawbridge and Rubin & Levin P.C. associate Joseph Mulvey often find themselves busy, stressed and buried in work, so the pressure can increase when they know they have to get out of the office to handle their evening shifts at the shelters.

Yet, once they arrive and start meeting with the residents, they see the hardship and loss which, they said, puts their issues in perspective. Strawbridge noted he usually leaves the shelter with a smile on his face, feeling he did his best work there.

Sleeping under a car

The project got its start more than 20 years ago when Montross walked to his car one snowy evening and discovered a man wrapped in a blanket sleeping underneath. Awaking suddenly, the man panicked and scrambled away, yelling back to Montross he was sorry.

“I was so saddened by seeing that and thinking about the fellow being so frightened, who was in such desperate need of shelter,” Montross said.

He reached out to shelter directors, asking them how he could help. After the directors told him many of the residents have legal problems and need the assistance of attorneys, Montross flipped through his bar association directory and began calling some friends.

For Brent Taylor, the project gave him a direct way to help the neediest people. The partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP said he was inspired to volunteer after seeing so many individuals hit hard by the economic recession of the early 1990s and living on the streets.

“I think pro bono service is very important,” Taylor said. “I’ve gotten a lot of personal satisfaction out of doing this.”

Usually, he can only hope that his work helped the residents. But one day, he was able to see the results. A woman he had counseled at the shelter called him at his office, telling him the sheriff’s deputy was coming and she was being evicted from an apartment.

Taylor said he went into action. Immediately, he got an appearance before a judge, made a due process argument because the woman had not been served with the proper notice, and was able to get the eviction halted. At least for that night, he pointed out, she still had a roof over her head.

Expanding the project

The project currently has about 44 attorneys who work an evening shift every few months at one of about six shelters. Now the program is considering ways to serve more people.

Mulvey, chair of the project, said the effort is looking to grow either by serving more shelters or by providing more targeted assistance to clients at Horizon House, a day center for the homeless. At Horizon House, the attorneys would offer legal help for expungements and child support modifications.

Expanding to Horizon House, Mulvey said, would allow the attorneys to be a little more involved. They could give advice to the residents and then help them maneuver the legal process.

The work can be fatiguing, hearing the stories of people who do not have much happiness in their lives. However, talking about the first night he met Edna, Montross underscored the mix of emotions that the work can bring forth.

“When I went out to my car, I was saddened by the sadness I had seen,” he said, “but I was buoyed by the fact that they were very appreciative and felt as though I had given them some solutions.”•


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