Veterans Legal Services: Pro-bono legal help for homeless and struggling troops

Photo: Veterans Legal Services

Coming back is never easy, but for the hundreds of veterans struggling with legal issues and fighting to stay off the streets, Veterans Legal Services (VLS), the Boston-based nonprofit legal team dedicated to providing pro-bono legal aid to veterans who are currently homeless or at risk of losing their homes, is here to help.

“Veterans are at a disproportionate risk for homelessness because of the lasting physical and psychological effects of military service,” said Anna Schleelein Richardson, co-executive director and chief counsel of VLS.

Veterans make up between 25 and 30 percent of the homeless population in Massachusetts, and many of them are homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless because of injuries sustained during their service or because of psychological affects, like PTSD, depression or severe anxiety.

“The legal issues that we’re helping veterans deal with are really very practical kinds of nuts-and-bolts problems: income stabilization, resolving family issues, housing security, VA benefits denial, eviction or if they need help in resolving issues to become eligible for low income housing,” Schleelein Richardson said.

“We try to intervene and help veterans figure out how are they going to manage their responsibilities along with their mental health and how can we get them to a place to resolve the legal problems that are preventing them from doing that,” she said.

VLS started nearly 25 years ago as Shelter Legal Services, a veterans’ organization focused on housing issues. The organization briefly expanded to working with homeless nonveterans and has now returned to its roots offering legal aid exclusively to homeless or at-risk veterans.

VLS operates differently than any other legal aid department in the city. Potential clients don’t need to make an appointment or travel to the VLS office; VLS lawyers go to them. VLS currently has legal clinic sites for walk-in services at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, the Bedford VA Medical Center, the Norfolk Veterans Treatment Court and the Cambridge Multi-Service Center for the Homeless.

The services cost nothing to veterans who are taken on as VLS clients. Last year the team served 450 clients and hope to represent 100 new homeless or at-risk veterans before June. “Getting to know these individuals and help them achieve their desired results is the biggest reward,” said Eve Elliott, a VLS staff attorney.

“Being able to preserve their housing or, better, their family situation—that’s huge,” she said. Family services and housing issues are two of the biggest issues VLS deals with on a regular basis, particularly in recent years.

“What is challenging for all service members and veterans is that serving in the military puts a tremendous strain on the veteran’s family and sources of social support, particularly with recent conflicts where we’ve asked people to do multiple deployments,” Schleelein Richardson said.

What happens most often, Scheelein Richardson and Elliott explained, is that a veteran may have left a stable job and, upon returning, is no longer to maintain his or her previous work schedule. If you add alimony or child support to the mix, back payments are constantly accruing, which will suck dry any VA benefits the veteran may have been eligible for.

It’s a powerful downward spiral that puts many veterans on the streets—the national number of homeless and at-risk Afghanistan and Iraq veterans has more than tripled in the last five years. “Family and a non-military employer may be able to support deployments one and two but break down after the third or fourth,” she said. “Transitioning back is difficult. If they can do it successfully they may end up a CEO of a major corporation; if they can’t, they may end up homeless,” she said.


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