Written By Alex KF Doolittle, Executive Director
Seattle Community Law Center
Have you ever walked down the street in your city, or any city, and walked right by someone who is homeless without even realizing it? Some of us are in a hurry to get to the next meeting or to get out of the rain. Some of us simply do not have anything to offer, this time. Others of us feel that homelessness is such a big and overwhelming problem that the only way to manage the feeling is to avoid the issue, for now. Bringing the issue back into focus, establishing ways that we can serve people who are without homes should be a priority. There are some small systemic changes that we can make within the legal profession to serve people who are homeless.
The problem of homelessness is faced by over 600,000 people each year in the United States.  Approximately half of those people also live with mental illness.  The combination of homelessness and mental illness is an issue that is being worked on every day by the Equal Justice movement in Washington State through the work of many Alliance for Equal Justice partners, including the Seattle Community Law Center (SCLC). SCLC provides Social Security advocacy to people with disabilities who are facing the risk or reality of homelessness. SCLC helps people with disabilities in crisis who are seeking to prevent the termination of their only realistic source of income. We also help people with disabilities when they are homeless and applying to receive Social Security benefits.
SCLC’s Disabled Homeless Advocacy Project (DHAP) is designed to deliver services to a population that may be geographically very close to our service area, but is logistically very difficult to reach without making some technical changes. Substantively, providing legal services to a person who is homeless is similar to serving someone who is housed. The legal standard does not change, and the facts of each client’s situation must be applied and analyzed as they are in every case. However, setting up the structure and process of delivering legal services to people who are homeless requires us to make some technical changes to our every day vision of how a law office should work. Some administrative changes can make it possible to move aside barriers that prevent us from engaging with and adequately serving people who are homeless.
In addition to high-quality advocacy, two primary things that make SCLC’s DHAP operate successfully are: (1) our method of performing intakes, and (2) the amount of time and focus we put on understanding a client’s priorities and their day-to-day life. These two things help increase the amount of legal aid available to people who are homeless, and also help us move toward changing the environment around us so that we may bring the issue of homelessness into a common field of vision, and into the circle of human concern.
Hold intake hours in the field, and outside of the legal community. Getting out from behind the desk, and building partnerships with public libraries, local homeless shelters, or community centers has been a simple and effective way to engage with people who are homeless at places where they are already served. Nearly all of the clients served by SCLC’s DHAP learn about our services and meet with their attorney in the field at a community place that the client was already seeking services at.
Discuss the context of the client’s schedule and priorities up front and be flexible. When someone seeks legal assistance, it is easy to assume that they have placed that issue at the top of their priority list. This is not always the case. In the case of a person who does not have a home or a place to prepare food, these basic needs are likely to compete for that top slot on their priority list. For some, transportation can be a challenge, getting a meal can take an unpredictable amount of time, and standing in line to be sure you have a bed to sleep in may be more important than anything else. Evaluating priorities and the context of the client’s life can help establish the necessary flexibility to make the attorney/client relationship successful while still maintaining firm expectations and boundaries.
These small system changes help to make us realize that the problem of homelessness that is experienced by so many of us is tangible and a barrier that the legal profession can help navigate and help people overcome.
 National Alliance to End Homelessness, State of Homelessness 2012, http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/soh-2012-chapter-one-homelessness-counts
 National Alliance to End Homelessness, http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/mental_physical_health