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Volunteer of the Month, Jason Porth

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

  • By: Rachel Fretz
  • Organization: VLSP

Going the Extra Mile for Clients

How can a parking ticket lead to an eviction? "Easily," says Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) Volunteer of the Month attorney Jason Porth, "if English is your second language and you can't understand the notices you get in the mail." Too often, a minor penalty, if left unchecked, can snowball.

To illustrate his point, Jason gives the example of his first Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) client, an Eritrean woman who, on top of working a full-time job, was also taking night classes to learn English. "It was a language issue. She couldn't understand the ticket and it got blown out of proportion," Jason explains, citing the Catch-22 for someone whose monthly rent was about $280 and owed a daunting $250 for a parking fine and late penalties: "If she didn't pay the fine, it would've led to an arrest warrant, but if she did pay it, she wouldn't have enough money left over for rent."

In just one year of volunteering for HAP, Jason's compassion and energy have helped two people stay in their homes and stave off potential homelessness. In addition to his incredible legal work, Jason goes above and beyond his role as a volunteer attorney. "Jason was genuinely concerned about the client's well-being and would stop by to check on her," says HAP social worker Abby Westbrook, "I just can't stress enough how wonderful an attorney and person he is."

A Detroit native, Jason received his B.A. from Brandeis University and his J.D. from Northeastern Law School, both in the Boston area. Jason credits Northeastern's unique "co-op" system that allows students to alternate semesters between working and going to school as having a pivotal impact on the type of law that he currently practices with the plaintiffs' labor and employment firm of Siegel & LeWitter.

Jason says his law school semesters spent working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League instilled a passion for righting wrongs, and working, as he currently does, to end all forms of discrimination, whether it be based on race, sexual orientation, disability, age, or any other issues that could create a hostile work environment.

When he first moved to the Bay Area with his wife Abigail in 1999, Jason began working at an East Bay law firm called Gough & Company, representing clients in civil rights and personal injury actions. Jason describes one of the founding partners of that firm, Kerry Gough, as being a mentor and an inspiration. "He has spent years speaking out against unfair treatment and has done tremendous work in the area of civil rights," Jason says, "Kerry instilled in me the value of turning one's vocation into one's career."

No doubt about it, Jason is following in those distinguished footsteps: In addition to his work at Siegel & LeWitter and his countless volunteer hours at HAP, Jason is a board member of both the Anti-Defamation League and the Raul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club.

Jason's interest in homeless advocacy work was piqued during the debate on San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's "Care Not Cash" initiative that seeks to replace cash assistance to homeless people with guaranteed housing and services. "I just felt that I didn't know enough about the issue to assess its merits and wanted a better understanding of the hurdles that our homeless neighbors face, as well as of the resources available to them," Jason says. "HAP seemed like a perfect way to gain a better understanding of these complex issues."

Jason was immediately impressed by HAP's holistic approach that recognizes the client as a person confronting many types of problems. "HAP is really a treasure," he says, "and a wonderful response to the homeless problem the city faces."

When Jason isn't busy going the extra mile on behalf of his clients, he's likely to be found going a few extra miles is his running shoes. Jason says his love of running marathons (he's done six "for fun!") gives him a sense of utter accomplishment as well as a goal to work towards. Perhaps part of Jason"s steadfast training is inspired by his clients who, he says, "are trying to go it alone, overcoming tremendous odds." With Jason's generosity of time and spirit, they are able to do just that.

VLSP's Homeless Advocacy Project provides homeless individuals and families, or those at serious risk of becoming homeless, with a variety of legal and related social services. HAP matches clients with volunteer attorneys, paralegals or law students who assist clients in matters including public and disability benefits, landlord/tenant, car tows, immigration and consumer matters, among others. For more information on volunteering, contact Lisa Wong at volunteering@sfbar.org.

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