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VA opens first legal-aid clinic for homeless veterans

Veterans AffairsJustice SystemBarack Obama

Honorably discharged decades ago, a former Marine was living in a Baltimore homeless shelter, surviving with the help of $255 a month for a disability he suffered while in the service.

Then he met Rochelle Richardson.

Richardson, an attorney who works with the Homeless Persons Representation Project to provide indigent veterans free legal counsel, learned that the man had an outstanding claim for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Richardson untangled his claim and submitted others for other unreported disabilities the former Marine sustained while he was in the corps. In June, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued the man a back payment of $23,396 and began sending monthly benefit checks of $1,503. He is no longer homeless.

Richardson hopes to continue securing back pay and benefits for former service members as she oversees the state's first Veterans Administration Medical Center legal clinic.

The clinic, which opened this month on the fifth floor of the Baltimore VA Annex on West Fayette Street, fills what Richardson says is a longtime need to help the growing number of homeless veterans who struggle to navigate the complex process of applying for benefits.

Nearly 18 percent of Baltimore's shelter population are homeless vets, according to recent census figures.

Richardson says she grew up in a military family. "For people who come from the military community, there's an aspect of our military culture that you don't leave anybody behind," she said. "They are former service members."

The clinic was created by the VA, the Homeless Persons Representation Project and Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps, which is paying Richardson's salary. Additional legal assistance, which is free to veterans, is to come from area law students and other attorneys who Richardson hopes will volunteer a few hours a week to help veterans.

"This is a case where having a lawyer makes a big difference," said Joe Surkiewicz, a spokesman for the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

Veterans advocates, President Barack Obama and lawmakers including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski have pushed the VA to reduce a historic backlog in disability claims.

Baltimore's VA office is one of the worst-performing in the nation, weekly data released by the agency show. Nearly 79 percent of the 12,596 disability claims at the office are more than 125 days old. The national average is about 67 percent.

The average wait for a decision in the Baltimore office, which serves all of Maryland, is nearly 22 months. The error rate is among the highest in the country at 18.8 percent; the national average is 10.1 percent.

The Homeless Persons Representation Project had been talking with the VA for years about starting a legal clinic. It has been training volunteer attorneys to handle disability claims and sending them to health fairs and shelters since 2008.

But Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representative Project, believed that a permanent clinic was needed to handle the demand. She enlisted the support of Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps, and the VA cleared space in its downtown medical facility for the operation.

Richardson, who had worked as an attorney to the Board of Veterans' Appeals helping review benefit claims decisions made by local offices and subsequent appeals, was chosen to run the project.

Richardson said attorneys with the clinic will represent veterans all the way through the claims process.

"We knew there were veterans who had pretty complex claims," Fasanelli said. "It would be wonderful if there were some lawyers who could help out."

On a typical night, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates, more than 62,600 veterans are homeless. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says twice that many veterans are likely to experience homelessness at some point over the course of a year.

After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans associations expect the number of homeless veterans to grow. About 12,700 veterans involved in recent wars or operations were homeless in 2010, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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