NEOCH and the Cleveland Bar Association Bring Legal Help to Homeless Community

            The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) and the Cleveland Bar Association has teamed to bring legal services to Cleveland’s homeless citizens.  NEOCH has hired a “street lawyer” to manage the new Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program (CHLAP), which will provide quality legal assistance to those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.  Until now, Cleveland has been the only major city in Ohio without a legal outreach program that targets its homeless community.  Staffed by one full time attorney and volunteers from the legal community, the program will hold weekly legal clinics in local homeless facilities beginning in August.

             Every night, Cleveland’s 1,100 shelter beds are filled to capacity by homeless families and individuals.  The City of Cleveland reported a 20% increase in requests from families for shelters in 1998, and a 5% increase in 1999 Common legal issued that can drastically impact one’s housing situation include domestic violence, landlord – tenant disputes, child support and criminal records.  Victims of domestic violence may become homeless due to a lack of information regarding protective orders and prosecution of abusers.  Single parents unable to collect child support payments often suffer financial hardship, which may cause their family to struggle with the possibility of homelessness.  Illegal eviction by a former landlord is a common scenario, forcing indigent tenants to take up residence on the streets.  Without an advocate to help expunge an old criminal record, many people seeking employment have no opportunity to maintain an income or procure stable housing.

             The experiences of other communities have shown that solving legal problems of homeless people can shorten or even prevent a person’s stay on the streets.  “As a former homeless person I found that I needed to clear the past in order to enter the future,” says Ron Reinhart, Director of the Salvation Army P.A.S.S. Program and Vice President of the Board at NEOCH.  “This is difficult when funds are already stretched thin.  Legal services will provide homeless people with the opportunity to clear another hurdle to responsibility.” 

             The vision for CHLAP arose through discussion in both the homeless and legal communities.  NEOCH staff meets with homeless people on a monthly basis to gather information and opinions about the gaps in existing service.  In a 1999 survey of local social service providers who serve the homeless, NEOCH found that 65% of responding providers indicated both the need for legal assistance to their clients and willingness to host legal clinics.  Among them is Jim Schlecht, a member of the Outreach Team for Care Alliance and the Volunteers of America.  “Those who are homeless and at risk of being homeless have very few options for legal assistance and advocacy at the present time,”  Schlecht says.  “I am excited about the beginning of the Homeless Legal Assistance Program.  It will provide legal representation to those who presently are not being served.”

             Before the creation of CHLAP, the Cleveland Bar Association’s Committee to Aid the Homeless struggled to bring attorneys to homeless people in the Cleveland area.  According to its Chairperson Rob Anderle, the Committee found that the successful coordination and expansion of such a project would require a full-time focus:  “We discovered that while our services truly impacted the lived of the individuals we met, our impact on the community as a whole was lacking,” says Anderle.  “CHLAP will serve a broader population and should provide a wider array of services through the additional coordination and the corresponding increase in volunteers that we expect.”

             This month a full –time attorney, Doug Lawrence was hired as CHLAP Coordinator to recruit and train pro bono attorneys, coordinate the program and oversee its expansion.  Lawrence previously worked with Mental Health for the Homeless, Inc., and brings to the program both legal skills and social service provision experience.

          CHLAP legal clinics will become available in August at specified times at the Salvation Army Shelter on 2100 Lakeside Avenue, and St. Patrick’s Club Building, 3606 Bridge Avenue.

 Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #44 Cleveland, Ohio September 2000