PILA Corner: The Fight to End Veteran Homelessness and the Role of Legal Aid

The Fight to End Veteran Homelessness and the Role of Legal Aid

By Mariah Hanley, UW Law, JD Class of 2016

 The Need.

DF-SC-84-11899The Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House set a goal to end veteran homelessness by December 31, 2015. Seattle, despite its ample resources for veterans and concerted effort to bring landlords and veterans seeking housing together through Operation WelcomeOneHome, was unsuccessful in ending veteran homelessness. 1,100 veterans were expected to experience homelessness in Seattle in 2015, and VA and homeless client databases found 662 homeless veterans in Seattle as of August 2015. According to a recent study, five out of the top ten needs for both male and female homeless veterans are legal in nature. Veterans with a less-than-Honorable characterization of service are seven times more likely to become homeless than those with an Honorable characterization of service.

The Services.

At the Seattle VA Medical Center, the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team (H-PACT) works to address the health and housing needs of homeless veterans. Together, this team of doctors, nurses, housing and benefits counselors, mental health providers, and social workers aim to address the interconnected needs of homeless veterans. However, this team is missing a lawyer- or a team of lawyers. The Medical-Legal Partnership model, long used in children’s hospitals to address the health-harming legal needs of low-income patients and families, has begun to be used in veterans healthcare settings to address the needs of vulnerable veterans, including those veterans currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness.  HPACTs, located in hospitals around the nation, already have the capacity to identify and treat the social service needs of veterans; developing the capacity to identify and treat legal needs is only a step further towards ending veteran homelessness. 

How You and I Can Make a Difference.

As a 3L who has interned both at Northwest Justice Project’s Veterans Project and its Medical-Legal Partnership, I strongly believe in the Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) approach to the delivery of legal services, especially for homeless or at-risk veterans. This approach treats legal problems that are affecting a person’s health, trains healthcare providers to identify health-harming legal needs, transforms the delivery of healthcare and legal services into one unified system, and works to prevent health-harming legal needs on an individual and population scale. Rather than work with only one issue (for example, only addressing public benefits issues), Medical-Legal Partnerships address the wide range of legal problems that can determine an individual’s health status. Homelessness can be prevented or addressed using legal interventions, and Medical-Legal Partnerships can provide these legal interventions.

To end veteran homelessness, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Legal Services Corporation, law schools, and legal service organizations must continue to create partnerships between the healthcare and social services providers that work with homeless veterans every day and the legal aid providers who can address some of the most pressing needs of these vulnerable veterans. The VA must consistently support the provision of legal services within their medical centers, legal services providers must develop cultural competency and best practices for working with veterans. Legal services providers should dedicate any available resources to ensuring that the most needy of the veterans in their community have access to legal services, whether through a Veterans Unit or Veterans Project, a dedicated Medical-Legal Partnership or through participation in events such as Stand Downs. The fight to end veteran homelessness will not be won without concerted efforts from every sector who works with veterans- the law included.