The Veterans Justice Center (VJC) is a special program of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. VJC is dedicated to honoring and protecting low-income veterans and their families through high-quality legal assistance and representation, as well as clinical case management services, to maintain economic security, promote housing stability and remove barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. VJC advocates on behalf of low-income veterans in a range of civil legal services including government benefits, housing and eviction defense, record expungement and citation defense, family law, employment law and other consumer law matters.
In the 2014-2015 year, the VJC developed three innovative service delivery models that may be replicated by other host sites and Fellows:
Legal Services at Veteran Stand Downs
VJC developed an innovative Pro Bono Legal Services Delivery Model to provide free legal services to a high volume of homeless veterans at Los Angeles-area “Stand Downs,” which are community service resource fairs for homeless veterans. The model involved: (1) Extensive recruitment and training of over 150 legal volunteers to deliver legal service at the events, (2) Consistent hands-on legal volunteer supervision at the events, (3) Creation of a comprehensive “Clinic In A Box” that includes detailed Substantive Legal Checklists, self-help guides, appropriate referral handouts, and LAFLA intake forms, and (4) Legal Services to over 450 homeless veterans at two Stand Down events. VJC was the first organization in the LA area to create this delivery model. One pro bono attorney noted, “It was so fulfilling to actually provide services to veterans; when I’ve volunteered with other agencies, I just give out referrals and I don’t feel helpful. This is the first time I could actually use my legal skills to help someone in need.”
Patriotic Hall Legal Assistance Center
In 2014, VJC coordinated the establishment of the Patriotic Hall Legal Assistance Center — a one-stop drop-in legal clinic for veterans. Creation of the one-stop shop is truly innovative as it brought together multiple legal service providers, including LAFLA, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Levitt & Quinn, Loyola Law School, as well as the Los Angeles Law Library to provide daily legal assistance to Veterans at a Los Angeles County Veteran services site — something that had never been done in Los Angeles County.
Law School Externships to Expand Service Delivery
VJC established a unique partnership with Loyola Law School (LLS) to provide expanded walk-in and hotline services to Veterans contacting the VJC for assistance. For the past five years, VJC head Nicole Perez has taught a Veterans Justice Practicum in the fall semester at LLS. In 2015, VJC expanded its work with LLS to bring three previous students into the VJC for the Spring Semester as “legal externs.” This expansion was truly a win-win-win. Externs benefitted through continued legal training, on-the-job professional development, and by working directly with low-income Veteran clients. VJC benefited by having expanded trained resources to provide service to veterans. Most importantly, veterans benefitted, as VJC was able to increase client intake, which enabled our Fellows to retain more cases for full-scope representation.
An honorably discharged veteran of the US Army and of the Vietnam War, “Ben” never thought his life would end up being such a struggle. He would get married; have a couple a kids and a maybe throw a Sunday barbecue every now and again, he thought to himself. However, the ravages of war and an economy that preferred not to include the likes of men like Ben eventually took its toll on him.
Struggling to survive, Ben traveled from place to place looking to put a roof over his head and a meal in his belly. Ben’s quest for food and shelter, however, was a daily struggle. Ben’s monthly general relief of $212 was barely enough to get by.
Moving from shelter to shelter, Ben was told of the work that LAFLA’s Veterans’ Justice Center has performed on behalf of thousands of veterans in Los Angeles. Ben thought to himself, “what the hell, I have absolutely nothing to lose,” so he placed a call to the VJC and requested help.
LAFLA staff spoke with Ben and went right to work. They obtained military records and filed a claim for benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). LAFLA staff argued that Ben’s present physical limitations, coupled with his homelessness and inability to work entitled him to a VA pension.
After working with staff from the VA Regional Office, the VA granted Ben’s claim for pension and paid him nearly $15,000 in retroactive benefits. In addition to Ben’s retroactive award, Ben will receive medial care, housing assistance and nearly $950.00 a month is additional, pension benefits.
When Ben learned of his award, he wept and then yelled, “I’m going to buy me a steak dinner!” Ben has been reunited with his estranged son and now lives in his very own duplex-house.
A legal resident from Mexico, Eduardo* joined the US Army envisioning the honor and respect he would enjoy for serving his adopted country. He proudly finished boot camp and received the accolades bestowed upon the American soldier. During his service in the Army, Eduardo contracted a serious blood disorder, which attacked his liver and heart. Eventually, Eduardo was honorably discharged from the military with the promise he would receive military compensation benefits. Unfortunately, Eduardo’s benefits never arrived.
Eduardo’s disability scarred him mentally and physically. Unable to work and without a means to support himself, he ended up destitute, homeless and without hope. Eduardo sought help from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) to piece his life together. The VA offered him a fraction of the assistance he needed and was told that his condition did not warrant more. Moreover, Eduardo stated that the VA withheld his benefits due to his only being a US resident and not a citizen. Homeless, Eduardo wandered from shelter to shelter, his appeals for more assistance from the VA falling on deaf ears.
Eventually Eduardo entered a program for veterans who suffer from homelessness and various disabilities. Learning of Eduardo’s situation, personnel at that program contacted attorneys at the Veterans’ Justice Center to see if they could help Eduardo receive justice. After a lengthy fight with the VA, the administration conceded that Eduardo’s disabilities were a result of his service and was subsequently found completely disabled. LAFLA attorneys were able to obtain nearly $63,000 in retroactive benefits, including a generous monthly stipend, medical care, and supported services. Because of the VJC, Eduardo has traveled to Mexico and Puerto Rico to visit family and friends, and is no longer homeless. He now enjoys not only the honor and respect for service to his adopted country, but our gratitude as well.
*Name has been changed.