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Home Is Where the Heart Is

Friday, May 16, 2003

  • By: Teresa Lynn Friend, Yvonne Mere, and Tiela Chalmers
  • Organization: Teresa Lynn Friend, Yvonne Mere, and Tiela Chalmers
When 52-year-old Karen** came to the Homeless Advocacy Project, she had been homeless for ten years. She lived on the streets, slept in doorways, and barely survived. She had once received disability benefits, but they were cut off in 1997. Karen had been without any income at all for 18 months when she arrived in our office.

"The homeless issue" is very political in San Francisco, and has been for more than 20 years. Everyone seems to have an opinion and a "plan" about what should be done, what has gone wrong, and how ineffective current programs are.

Amid, and yet outside, the fray, the staff and volunteers of the Bar Association of San Francisco's Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) go about the critical business of working one-on-one with individuals and families who are homeless or at serious risk of homelessness to solve their problems, reduce the barriers to stability, and make their lives better.

The Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) is part of the Bar's Volunteer Legal Services Program. HAP was founded in 1988 to address the legal needs of individuals and families who are homeless. The project has grown and evolved into a community institution that serves more than 2,000 clients every year. HAP provides comprehensive legal services with a unique holistic approach that uses supporting social services to address the complex reality of our clients' lives, and make the legal work more effective. A combination of experienced staff and volunteer legal and social services professionals work together to truly make a difference in our clients' lives. It is usually not high-profile or glamorous, but it works.

Our clients are, by definition, in the midst of serious crises. Many are severely mentally ill. Most have lost jobs, homes, and family, and - sometimes worse - have lost self-respect and hope. Daily life without housing can quickly wear down even the toughest person. Sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, hunger, theft, fear, and the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracies that are supposed to provide help, can be devastating. At HAP, we make every effort to treat clients with dignity, and help them negotiate the obstacles that stand in their way to greater stability. Legal advocates can play an extremely powerful role in resolving our clients' problems. Social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists work with the legal professionals to address clients' non-legal issues, making the legal work more effective and increasing the likelihood that clients will be able to achieve lasting positive change in their lives.

The close relationships that HAP has with other community agencies mean access to even more resources for our clients. HAP has formal collaborative partnerships with Swords to Plowshares, Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, Inc., the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and Support for Families with Disabled Children, among others. Special projects at HAP, including the Healthcare Access Project, the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, the SSI Project, and the SSI for Kids project, allow the program to focus on these important issues.

We think that the volunteers and staff at HAP are very special people. However, we also believe that any legal or social service professional (or prospective professional, because we have lots of superb student interns in both the legal and social services fields) can do an excellent job, with the right training and support. A major goal of the HAP staff is to provide the best training and supervision possible to our volunteers.

Volunteering at HAP provides many opportunities. Law students and paralegals get the chance to work directly with clients, learning new skills and even representing clients in administrative hearings. New attorneys practice their interviewing and negotiating skills, get litigation experience, and gain experience in the courtroom or at administrative hearings. Seasoned attorneys use their valuable skills in new areas of the law, for clients who are sometimes very different from those in their regular practice. All of our volunteers have the opportunity to learn firsthand about "the homeless issue," from people for whom it is not about politics, but about their very survival.

But first and foremost - the reason that our best volunteers stay with HAP - is that it provides the opportunity to do work that matters, work that makes a real difference in someone's life. And to do that work in a supportive and congenial environment, where both our clients and our volunteers are supported and treated with respect. As long-time volunteer attorney Ken Odell says, "I love this place!"

Last year, a major newspaper did a large spread about how ineffective services for the homeless are in San Francisco. It included lots of photographs portraying apparently dirty and desperate drug addicts undermining the quality of life for all of us in the City. One whole page focused on a heroin addict named Sam**. "But wait," we thought, "that man is our client!" And even at the time the article ran, Sam wasn't homeless anymore. With the holistic assistance provided by a HAP advocate, Sam - who was severely mentally ill, something not mentioned in the article - had been approved for disability benefits. He entered into drug treatment, and was reunited with his family, who now provided him with a place to live.

There are effective homeless services in San Francisco, and HAP is one of them. We encourage any legal or social services professionals who are interested in joining us to contact Amanda Chavez at achavez@sfbar.org.

After conducting an assessment, we realized that Karen's SSI disability benefits had been terminated prematurely, and her Medi-Cal benefits had been wrongfully cut off. A HAP advocate succeeded in getting her Medi-Cal restored, while appealing the termination of her SSI benefits.

Meanwhile, HAP staff, student interns, and volunteers assisted Karen in getting county welfare benefits and in obtaining medical treatment. A volunteer psychiatrist performed a consultative examination to establish that she has a mental disability, and she was successfully represented at a hearing that established her eligibility for ongoing SSI benefits. While pursuing these issues, a HAP Social Service Advocate helped Karen to find and apply for affordable, subsidized housing. After gradually moving up various wait lists, Karen was finally able to move into a subsidized building. At first, she had a difficult time making the transition from the streets into housing. She missed a few appointments and seemed to be sabotaging her opportunity to remain in stable housing. After receiving patient, persistent, and supportive counseling from HAP, however, Karen was able to follow through with her move-in. Karen now pays just 30 percent of her income for rent, receives monthly SSI checks, gets the medical attention she has needed for many years, and has been drug-free for many months. She stopped by the HAP office recently and said, "Thank you for helping me get my place. It is so beautiful, it has given me a new lease on life."

** Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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