Free Legal Advice

Volunteer lawyers help people stay in their homes, avoid evictions

What if Syracuse’s homeless issue were tackled by preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place?

What if instead of trying to find temporary living space, someone created a program that targeted the reasons people end up homeless and used it to combat homelessness?

The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County, Inc., 221 S. Warren St., is doing this for a specific segment of the homeless population.

“While there are great organizations out there working to end homelessness, often times they were missing the legal aspect of the advocacy,” said Derek English, staff attorney who is heading up the new program. “That’s where the Volunteer Lawyers Project steps in.”

Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County is a nonprofit organization that seeks to offer free legal counsel to low-income individuals. It is composed of lawyers, who volunteer their time, and law students.

LawyersInstead of waiting until people are homeless and hopping from shelter to shelter, the Volunteer Lawyers Project works to help people stay in their homes before they get evicted and end up on the streets.

“Shelters are not long-term housing,” said Bethanie Hemingway, volunteer engagement and development manager at Volunteer Lawyers Project. “Most residents remain in the shelters for only a few months at most. These months are a critical time to intervene and provide much-needed legal work that can be transformative in the lives of the client.”

Because of this different aspect of taking on homelessness, the organization was awarded a $15,000 grant from the Central New York Community Foundation in October to help implement the Homeless Advocacy and Prevention program, Hemingway said.

Currently, there is a program at Rescue Mission’s Day Center, 155 Gifford St., where clients can get free legal advice and referrals through a confidential one-on-one meeting with a lawyer. The clinic there is open from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays.

Hemingway said with the new grant, more clinics will be added in other locations across Syracuse. They will open in four homeless shelters and one soup kitchen.

English said the goal is for the clinics to be open by January 2016 with six to 10 volunteers at each site. He said permission already has been granted by the shelters’ directors to establish the clinics, and now the program is working to find and train volunteer lawyers for the clinics.

Kendall Slee, Rescue Mission communications specialist, said that having the lawyers go to the day center makes them accessible for the guests of the center.

“We are really pleased to have their expertise,” Slee said. “Often the individuals that are coming in to the day center don’t have access to legal advice and this is a great first step for them to get direction on questions that they have.”

Bethany Hemingway

Bethanie Hemingway

Hemingway said the decision to start the Homeless Advocacy and Prevention program was made because in 2014, the nonprofit represented more than 900 people in landlord tenant court. Of those, 75 percent were able to delay or avoid eviction, preventing homelessness.

“Because of this clear need in our community, we thought it best to focus our project on eviction and homelessness,” Hemingway said.

The grant will enable the group to gather data of where there is a high number of people who are wrestling with evictions, according to John Eberle, vice president of grants at CNY Community Foundation.

The CNY Community Foundation is a group that administers nearly 700 funds with its total asset level at nearly $190 million. The funds are set up by people who want the money to go back to the community; then the foundation turns the funds into grants. Last fiscal year, the Community Foundation awarded nearly $10 million in grants; $2 million of that was awarded through its Community Grantmaking and Initiatives. The Volunteer Lawyers Project received from this fund.

Eberle said the Volunteer Lawyers Project was chosen because the foundation loves to see when diverse groups and projects come together to build up the community. He said it makes more of a lasting difference when that happens.

“Anything we can do to help people from becoming homeless is a good thing in this community,” Eberle said.



— Article by Kayli Thompson, Urban Affairs Reporter for The Stand