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The city of Boston is ramping up efforts to end homelessness among veterans, and for one local organization, that means focusing on legal assistance.
Boston-based Veterans Legal Services (VLS) is the only organization of its kind in the state. The nonprofit helps veterans access benefits and navigate civil court proceedings. Its clients are specifically low-income and homeless veterans, all of whom struggle financially.
Without Support, Many Struggling Veterans Feel 'Unprepared' In Court
"Well, you know, I lost my job and I couldn't pay the rent," said Rich, a 64-year-old veteran originally from Boston. He served two and a half years in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and now he lives at the veterans shelter at the VA Hospital in Bedford.
We agreed to use only his first name for this story, because Rich is concerned about finding a new job.
"I had some difficulties, uh, you know some health issues, mental health issues and stuff," he said. "I have periods of being able to work full-time and then I have some issues, some periods where it's hard for me to maintain employment."
Just before entering the military, Rich dropped out of high school, finishing his GED while he served in the war.
"And when I came out, I went right to school with the GI bill," he said. "I was able to get into a community college, Quincy Community College, and from there I went to a nursing program at MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital], actually. So, it wasn't a hard transition for me, it was pretty nice actually."
Rich said he worked as a nurse for 36 years, but that for the past four months, he's been out of a job and searching for employment, anxious to get back to work.
"I feel, you know, that I still have some work left in me," Rich said. "I'm not ready to retire yet. I have young children, also, that are dependent on me."
We met Rich at Veterans Legal Services, where he told us about why he sought legal help from the attorneys there.
"I had some," he said with a pause before sighing, "child support issues that I had to go to court to deal with, and I couldn't afford an attorney."
Rich said his experience navigating the legal system "was awful," adding that as he sought to adjust the child support payments he then struggled to afford, he felt ill-equipped to make his case.
"It was terrible. I didn't do well the first time I went to court," he said. "I was unprepared, I really didn't know what to expect, and I felt that I kind of got a rough treatment. So, I really didn't want to go back again by myself. I was very afraid, actually. I almost skipped out on it, you know, I really didn't want to go in."
When Rich eventually did go back to court, however, he explains how Eve Elliott, a staff attorney at VLS, was critical in helping him handle his case to adjust his child support.
"I wasn't working. I hadn't seen my children in a couple of years. I hadn't talked to my ex in a couple of years. We were able to work out a plan, a deal, that I wasn't expecting that I was going to be able to do," he said. "It was an amazing thing what transpired. You know, we didn't see the judge. I mean we talked out in the hall about the whole thing. I couldn't have done it without Eve."
Child Support Arrears Is One Of Top Causes Of Veteran Homelessness
Elliott said one of the largest areas of practice for VLS is family law.
"Rich's situation is very typical," she explained. "I think a lot of the veteran clients get into situations where they fall behind in their child support, and child support arrears is one of the leading causes of veteran homelessness."
Elliott said the nonprofit organization feels providing those kinds of services to veterans is essential in helping to end homelessness for that population.
"So, traditionally veterans haven't been a group that have been prioritized for receiving legal assistance," she said. "The push to end veterans homelessness has certainly helped us in explaining why our legal services are necessary."
VLS serves the five counties surrounding Boston — Middlesex, Norfolk, Essex, Plymouth and Suffolk.
"So, we don't cover Worcester, we don't cover western Mass., and we're always getting phone calls, because, unfortunately, there are no legal services agencies that cover those areas, which is one of the reasons we've worked on expanding our volunteer attorney program so we can cover more of those cases," Elliott said.
According to Elliott, many private attorneys are often willing to volunteer their time and expertise to VLS.
"I think in some ways it's hard for an attorney whose background is in corporate matters, to be willing to go into family and probate court or go into housing court, but if they have that willingness to learn then they're a huge asset to us," she said.
And while getting a helping hand from attorneys may not be a huge issue for VLS, Elliott said several factors — even simply pride — make veterans reluctant to reach out.
"They're reluctant to ask for assistance. I think a lot of times they're taught to sort of make do with whatever resources they have, and they put others above themselves sometimes, so they don't want to necessarily ask for help for themselves," she explained.
Often, Elliott said, she tries to reassure veterans that seeking guidance is OK.
For Rich, things are better. He said he's able to see his kids now and is hopeful he'll be back to work soon.
This story aired on November 11, 2015.
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