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Civil Legal Aid Can Help Veterans Struggling With Homelessness

By Lonnie Powers

On any given night in the U.S., close to 39,500 military veterans are homeless. Nearly 1,000 of them are in Massachusetts.

These are men and women who have put their lives on the line in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the jungles of Vietnam. They fought in the Korean War, Panama, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf. And yet, after all they endured in service to our country, they are sleeping in shelters, and living on the streets or in homeless encampments.

The reasons for their homelessness are complex. There are the general stressors that contribute to homelessness such as a shortage of affordable housing and limited opportunities to earn a living wage, coupled with the fact that military training and occupations don’t always translate well to the civilian workforce. Those issues are compounded by mental health problems that result from, or were exacerbated by, their service and the absence of social support networks. Child support arrears have also been identified as a leading cause of homelessness among veterans.

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in 2010 President Barack Obama launched an initiative aimed at ending veteran homelessness by 2015. As part of that, cities across the country, including a handful in Massachusetts, joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. And while the initiative’s ultimate goal has yet to be achieved, homelessness among veterans has fallen nationally by 47 percent in the last six years, while unsheltered homelessness has been reduced by 56 percent. Locally, Lynn became the first Massachusetts city to end veterans’ homelessness earlier this year. Boston has succeeded in housing all but just a small number of veterans who are homeless as of the beginning of this year.

Civil legal aid—free legal assistance or representation for low-income individuals facing non-criminal legal issues—has been an integral part of ensuring our veterans have safe, stable housing. The Department of Justice has noted that four of the most pressing unmet needs of homeless veterans involve legal assistance: preventing eviction/foreclosure, child support issues, outstanding warrants/fines, and restoration of a driver’s license. Recognizing the need, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made grant funding available to legal aid organizations to assist veterans as part of President Obama’s initiative.

In addition to working to get veterans into permanent housing, civil legal aid is often an effective intervention for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless—an estimated 1.4 million veterans nationwide. For example, several years ago, Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, now known as Community Legal Aid (CLA) helped Iraq War veteran Michael Damon and his family avoid foreclosure on their Uxbridge home. The family fell into financial hardship when war-related injuries left Damon disabled and he was ineligible to receive workers’ compensation. His injuries made him unable to care for his two children, which prevented his wife Lisa from working full-time. It wasn’t long before they received a foreclosure notice. Damon’s legal aid attorney filed suit on the family’s behalf against Countrywide Home Loans and Deutsche Bank. Their case was ultimately settled after their attorney was able to assist the Damons in repurchasing their home with a more affordable mortgage.

In another instance, MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) succeeded in helping a 17-year Air Force veteran keep a roof over her head after a layoff and a stretch of unemployment brought her close to financial ruin. An MWLS attorney helped the veteran file for bankruptcy and represented her at the hearing, which resulted in the discharge of a large credit card debt—and a more stable financial future.

The theme of Veterans Day this year is “Courage-Honoring All Who Served.” As we honor and thank those who have served in our military, we must remember that for far too many veterans, the perils of service do not end with discharge from the military. If we truly want to honor all of our military veterans, we must ensure that the most vulnerable among them have the services and support they need and deserve to thrive as civilians.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.