Op-Ed

Miami’s homeless veterans need legal assistance. You can help them get it.

Homeless veterans often need legal help to get their lives back on track.
Homeless veterans often need legal help to get their lives back on track.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently released the results of a survey of homeless veterans, including those here in South Florida, asking what types of services and support they need to get back on track. Some answers were predictable, such as housing or mental health treatment. But their most common request might surprise you: civil legal aid. As an attorney with the Veteran’s Legal Advocacy Project at Legal Services of Greater Miami, I can tell you why that is — and how you can help.

The CHALENG survey, short for Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups, asks homeless veterans every year about their needs and wants. Four of the top 10 requests from male veterans this year were legal help for child support, restoring a driver’s license, resolving outstanding warrants and fines and preventing evictions. Another recent study found that 88 percent of low-income veterans (and 86 percent of all low-income Americans) received no help at all or inadequate help for civil legal problems like these.

This means that even for veterans who risked their lives to defend the principle of justice for all, justice may be out of reach in civil courts.

Most of us know that if you are accused of a crime in America you have the right to a lawyer if you cannot afford one. However, many people do not know that if you are having civil legal troubles and you cannot pay for an attorney, you are usually on your own. This includes issues that can have serious consequences like landlord-tenant disputes, divorce and child support, consumer debt and more.

When these issues go unresolved, they can quickly spiral out of control. People can lose their homes, their livelihoods and even their children, simply because they cannot afford the legal help to enforce their rights. Fortunately, last year we helped almost 300 veterans avoid these terrible outcomes through the Veteran’s Legal Advocacy Project.

For example, we recently helped a Vietnam-era veteran obtain Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Even though he had severe physical impairments and was hospitalized at the VA, the Social Security Administration claimed he was not disabled and denied him the assistance. Without the SSI benefits, the veteran could not afford housing. We represented the veteran at a hearing before the Social Security Administration; we won: He got his benefits plus back pay of $14,152. These funds helped him obtain housing, leave the hospital and avoid homelessness.

Organizations like Legal Services of Greater Miami offer civil legal aid to those who cannot afford attorneys on their own. This includes critical legal work like defending evictions and foreclosures, and appealing denials of VA, Medicaid and disability benefits. The 50,000 veterans in Miami-Dade are an important part of the population we serve.

Unfortunately, too many veterans still go without the help they need. How can you help? If you know a veteran in Miami-Dade or Monroe County with a civil legal problem, refer them to the Veteran’s Legal Advocacy Project. If you are a lawyer, volunteer to take a case. Or, support civil legal aid programs, like Legal Services of Greater Miami, which prevent veteran homelessness and ensure that veterans have access to the justice they fought to protect.

Brittney Horton is a staff attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami.

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