With federal and state grant money, Indiana Legal Services Corp. is expanding its assistance to focus on the root causes of housing loss so more low-income veterans can get help staying in their homes without having to wait for the eviction notice to arrive.
The statewide legal aid organization is creating the Veteran Housing Stability Project, which will help prevent evictions and homelessness among former members of the military in all of Indiana’s 92 counties. Previously, the Veterans Eviction Avoidance Project provided assistance only when the loss of a home was imminent.
“While we saw a slight increase in homelessness among veterans during the pandemic, the housing moratorium and assistance available through federal and state funding considerably helped prevent more people from being affected,” Polli Pollem, director of ILS’s Military Assistance Project, said. “Now that those protections have expired, we’re once again seeing a rise in veterans experiencing evictions and homelessness, which makes being able to provide these services incredibly important.”
Pollem credited the combination of two grants with enabling the housing program to grow. The Supportive Services for Veterans and Families grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs along with funds from the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs have presented the opportunity for ILS to do more.
Through the current $290,376 SSVF grant, five social service agencies around Indiana have developed partnerships with ILS to provide civil legal assistance to veterans. The collaborations were born from the requirement that organizations receiving the federal money must contract with legal aid offices.
Pollem and her team of attorneys, all of whom have served in the armed forces, are now taking referrals from the partnering agencies and helping clients address the legal barriers to stable living.
Also aiding the housing project is the annual IDVA grant to Indiana Legal Services. Presently, ILS is using the $70,177 grant to not only serve the areas of the state not covered by the five partnering agencies, but also to go above the strict income limit of the SSVF grant and give legal assistance to veterans with incomes that reach 200% of the federal poverty level, Pollem said.
“Under the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs grants, we had the Veteran Eviction Avoidance Project,” Pollem explained. “But when this SSVF project came on with the five grantors, I said, ‘Why can’t we have a stronger reach? Why can’t we reach all of the 92 counties and why can’t we serve people that have a higher income?’”
The new housing stability project will address the legal issues that can eventually put an individual at risk for homelessness. Pollem said the goal of the project is to remove those legal barriers like restoring driving privileges, helping with a debt issue or child support modification or getting a military discharge upgrade.
Ranelle Allen, health care navigator for the SSVF program at Northwest Indiana Community Action agency, has worked with Pollem and the MAP team since 2021, sending referrals and serving as a liaison between the veteran and attorney.
“This program is such an asset to the veterans we serve as well as our team,” Allen said. “… The cases are divided by county with a majority of cases from Lake County. Evictions are the main inquiry.”
Although the veterans being referred through the SSVF grantors may come with a variety of legal problems, Pollem said housing has to be addressed first. Then the attorneys can sort through the other issues when the client is not so overwhelmed.
“Quite frankly, if you’re thinking about living out of your car because you’re about to get kicked out and what are you going to do with all your stuff, when I start asking you questions about, ‘What kind of discharge did you get? What branch of service?’ you just don’t have the brain space to answer,” Pollem said.
The expansion of the ILS program should have no shortage of work. The 2021 results of the annual survey of veterans by Project CHALENG — Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups — found that seven of the top 10 unmet needs of veterans were issues that required legal assistance.
“Serving veterans has been my ultimate focus but I feel like right now I’m able to handle this on a larger scale,” Pollem said of the housing stability project. “I’m not going to say it’s systemic, but it allows us to help a lot more veterans across the state, and that warms my heart.”•