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VOL. 125 | NO. 43 | Thursday, March 4, 2010

Baker Donelson to Help Launch Memphis Homeless Clinic

By Rebekah Hearn

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The homeless community in Memphis and many other cities has grown by leaps and bounds since the housing market all but collapsed, and people left without homes and perhaps jobs struggle to meet even their most basic needs.

So it’s no surprise finding legal help, even for important matters such as resolving an outstanding warrant, often falls by the wayside.

The Homeless Experience Legal Protection (HELP) program, launched in early 2004 by a New Orleans federal judge, gives legal providers and law firms a platform to work with so they can offer pro bono clinics specifically targeted to the homeless community. Fifteen cities already offer the HELP clinics, and besides Memphis, two more programs are scheduled to kick off soon in Austin, Texas, and Hartford, Conn.

Putting the pieces together

The Memphis office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC is holding the clinics with the help of Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. and the Community Legal Center. Clinics will be held starting in April, at first monthly at the Hospitality Hub at 146 Jefferson Ave.

Lori Patterson, a pro bono coordinator for Baker Donelson, said the idea came from U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey.

While serving meals to the homeless with other judges at a New Orleans shelter, Zainey thought an attorney – or a judge – could do much more to help.

“So he started HELP in New Orleans, and the way he works it is he relies on law firms that have a relationship with – ours is one of those law firms – and he looks at cities (with) significant homeless populations and he brings the clinic to that city,” Patterson said. “So Memphis has been on his list for a while, and it’s our turn.”

The timing is coincidental. As the city looks to reduce panhandling and address the lack of homeless shelters, the HELP clinic comes at a good time.

“The ultimate goal of the clinic, of course, is to … provide legal advice and help that would ultimately help get people off the street, or provide a solution to a problem that possibly led them to homelessness,” said Patterson, who will oversee the clinics.

She also has coordinated the volunteer efforts. The first volunteer recruitment meeting was held Feb. 23, and the outpouring of attorneys was remarkable.

“I think we had room for 90 people, and it was standing-room only,” Patterson said. Several judges, including Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice Holder, turned out to volunteer or speak.

Patterson said she didn’t set a numerical goal for volunteers, because she didn’t know what to expect. But the volunteers represent “a good cross-section of the bar,” and she said she’s happy with the turnout.

Moving forward

Getting the word out to the homeless population isn’t as simple as putting ads in newspapers or on TV and radio.

Not every homeless person is uneducated, but many don’t have access to these outlets, and if they do, every day can be a struggle just to gather food and necessities, leaving time for little else.

That’s why Patterson said they are advertising at shelters and at the Hospitality Hub, which is not a soup kitchen or shelter, but a self-billed “sanctuary” for homeless people – especially the newly homeless.

The Hub offers refreshments, locker storage, an address to receive mail, Internet access, telephones and computers.

The goal, according to www.hospitalityhub.org, is to offer a place for the homeless to be “connected to resources available to help them achieve physical, mental, spiritual and economic stability.”

Besides advertising there, Patterson said she has a list of all the major shelters in town and will post notices. An announcement also will be recorded on the free 2-1-1 information phone line.

MALS and CLC will provide administrative assistance, training sessions and help staffing the clinics, which will be operated by one firm a month.

“The ultimate idea would be to have a larger law firm take one clinic out of the year and staff that clinic, and Baker Donelson will do the first one,” Patterson said. “We’ll also have other lawyers, because you don’t want to just have lawyers from one firm, for conflicts reasons and lots of reasons.

“Then we would have other lawyers we would add onto that team. We really don’t know how much the demand is going to be until we get in there and start doing the work.”

The HELP clinic will differ from many offered around town in that it also will help with minor criminal issues.

MALS’ pro bono attorneys are prepared to take on any number of non-criminal cases, but they don’t do misdemeanors and low-level crimes.

Often, a homeless person may be prevented from getting a job or finding a home because they have an outstanding warrant for something as simple as not appearing in court.

“It may even have been something that started out as a traffic offense or a simple fine,” Patterson said. “Yes, I would say that’s a little different, but I think that would be an area where you’d see that particular area of the population need help.”

For more complicated criminal issues, Patterson said the HELP program may call on members of the local defense bar on their volunteer referral list.

For more information, visit www.homelesslegalprotection.com.

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