For individuals struggling with homelessness, a legal problem can pale in comparison to the dilemma of finding a place to sleep at night or getting something to eat.
Indiana Legal Services attorney Annette Biesecker has witnessed this prioritizing of troubles from her position supervising the ILS Horizon House Legal Clinic. She credited the staff at Horizon House, a nonprofit day center for the homeless in Indianapolis, with tending to the immediate needs by working to help these individuals get food stamps, medical care, employment and permanent housing.
That work, Biesecker said, is more important than what she does.
However, resolving a legal problem like a suspended driver’s license or unpaid child support can remove a significant financial barrier and give a homeless person a real boost toward long-term stability. So every Thursday, ILS attorney Amy Skelton or Biesecker offer advice and counsel to individuals who rely on Horizon House.
“Sometimes the people who need you the most are the least able to discover you,” Biesecker said. “This group needs us the most.”
The ILS initiative got some much-needed stability of its own when the Herbert Simon Family Foundation gave a $60,000 two-year grant in 2014. Recently, the foundation renewed its support with a $45,000 three-year grant.
Biesecker said the additional grant money enables Indiana Legal Services to make the clinic sustainable.
Currently, the funding is paying the salary of Skelton as well as part of the salary of Biesecker and other attorneys. As the amount of the grant declines over the next three years from $20,000 to $15,000 to $10,000, ILS will gradually absorb the personnel costs and continue to offer the services.
“I am delighted,” Biesecker said of the grant. “I am a big fan of the Herbert Simon Family Foundation and the way they nurture programs.”
In 2016, the ILS homeless clinic served 129 individuals at Horizon House who had a range of legal problems from family law cases involving child support and divorce to criminal record expungement, landlord-tenant disputes and driver’s licenses issues. Also, the clinic gives guidance about matters that do not merit full representation.
Leslie Kelly, program director at Horizon House, said the neighbors (Horizon House parlance for the homeless who visit the center) benefit from having an attorney onsite. They are less intimidated about approaching a lawyer because they are not worried about having enough money to pay or about being able to explain their problems.
“Accessibility to civil legal consultation and the legal process is critical for our neighbors but not necessarily easy to come by, so having an ILS attorney right in the dayroom on a weekly basis really makes this partnership work,” Kelly wrote in an email. “For our neighbors who often have complex barriers to employment and housing, resolving a legal issue or finding out there is no legal remedy can make the difference in moving a neighbor forward on a journey toward stability.”
The key to connecting with the Horizon House neighbors is the licensed lawyer.
ILS had been sending a paralegal to the facility but no one ever used the service. Curious what was happening, Biesecker went to Horizon House herself, plunked her name plate on the table and took a seat. The clients have been coming ever since.
Jeffrey Darling is among those who approached Biesecker. The 59-year-old is trying to get Social Security disability benefits but following the initial denial of his claim, he realized he needed an attorney to help him through the appeals process. He called upon other lawyers but could not find one to take his case.
Then he met Biesecker. Now he has someone who can navigate the bureaucracy as well as push him to do the things he needs to do to keep his appeal moving forward.
“She’s pretty great,” Darling said of his attorney.
As Biesecker pointed out with many of the individuals who use Horizon House, Darling has immediate needs that outweigh his legal matter. He is homeless and was sleeping on the streets. Other people kept stealing his blankets, and the cold weather came so he has been slipping into a local shelter each night. But he sleeps by the exit and leaves first thing each morning because he does not like the crowded quarters.
At Horizon House, he can take a shower, do his laundry and choose from a breakfast menu of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, doughnuts and oatmeal.
Darling slid into his current situation because of his criminal record and mental disability. Getting assistance from Social Security would enable him to get a permanent residence and alleviate the stress that comes with having to find shelter and food every day.
From her vantage point, Biesecker has seen the “overwhelming complexity of the life of a homeless person.” She has been surprised to learn how important a driver’s license is and how many homeless people work when they can get jobs.
Biesecker compared her work at Horizon House to bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. “But at least I’m not putting more water in,” she said.•