Fall 2016: ProBono Spotlight

Serving Those Who Serve at 2016 Massachusetts Veterans Stand Down

By Anna Richardson, Co-Executive Director & Chief Counsel at Veterans Legal Services

Photo: Veterans Legal Services Staff and Volunteers (from left to right). Andrew O’Connell, Paul Hart, Ann Brennan, Chris Whetherson, Amy Robinson, Kevin Fields, Kate Ismeurt, Carolyn Amir, Jessica Drew, Allan Ryan, Sarah Roxburgh, Julia McCletchie, Hannah Taylor, Sara Silva, Lynn Girton, Eve Elliott, Jessica Youngberg, John Koury, Anna Richardson, Maria Durant.

Every year at the end of the summer the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) and the New England Center and Home for Veterans partner with dozens of service agencies at Massachusetts Veterans Stand Down.  Stand Down focuses on providing as many services as possible to homeless and at-risk veterans in one location. At Stand Down, veterans can receive everything from a dental check-up to a new pair of shoes. And every year, Veterans Legal Services teams up with the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School, volunteer lawyers, and the Boston Bar Association to make sure those veterans get the legal help that they need.

Every night, nearly 50,000 veterans sleep on America’s streets, and countless more are at risk. These men and women are struggling with the lasting consequences of their military service. They are veterans who could not successfully navigate the bureaucracy to access the benefits and services they have earned. Veterans who became disabled and incapable of supporting themselves. Veterans one step away from eviction. Veterans who need to clear a warrant, or seal their criminal record. They come from all walks of life. What they all have in common is that they need our help. And help doesn’t just mean food, or shelter, or medical care, it means legal assistance too. 

This year, more than twenty-five lawyers and law students joined Veterans Legal Services to provide pro bono counseling and advice to veterans at Stand Down. By far, one of the biggest areas of need was family law. Volunteer lawyers counseled veterans on how to reconnect with their children, fulfill their responsibilities as parents, and even stop their children from being taken out of the state or the country without court permission or their consent.

The VA has identified unmet legal needs as one of the root causes of veteran homelessness. Of the top ten unmet needs of homeless and at-risk veterans, legal needs rank even higher than housing and assistance establishing appropriate child support orders is paramount. When veterans return from service with disabilities like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury it can lead to difficulties with employment and lost earning capacity. At the same time, if these veterans do not seek a timely modification of their child support, up to sixty-five percent of their benefits can be garnished, often putting their housing and basic subsistence at risk. At Stand Down, volunteers helped these veterans get on track to modifying their support to a level more commensurate with their circumstances, formulating plans for addressing arrears, and reconnecting with their children.

After talking with a lawyer at Stand Down, veterans reported feeling less overwhelmed and more capable of addressing their legal issues. One homeless veteran commented he felt hopeful for the first time in years that things could get better. To find out more about how you can help give that same feeling of hope to a person who has served our country today, or at next year’s Stand Down, contact Veterans Legal Services’ Pro Bono Director, Lynn Girton, at Lynn@veteranslegalservices.org or visit veteranslegalservices.org.