By Amanda Brooks
On February 1, 2003 the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless was lucky enough to add a new member to our staff list. Joan M. Burda, a native of Garfield Heights, Ohio joined NEOCH as the Program Director of the Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program. Burda graduated from Bowling Green State University and later went on to pursue a law degree at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, Ca.
She was admitted to the bar on May 10, 1982. She began working at the Lorain County Legal Aid office and then moved to UAW Legal Services, which she explains as a prepaid legal services plan. Burda stayed with UAW Legal Services for nine years and then moved on to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Cleveland. While she was working at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service office she held the position of a supervisor in the Garnishment Division. In February of 2001, Burda went her own way and went into private practice.
In 1998, the American Bar Association published a book she wrote entitled, “An Overview of Federal Consumer Law.” She also remarked that the American Bar Association “will also publish a book I am currently working on dealing with estate planning issues affecting gay and lesbian clients”. Along with her books, Burda has written several articles on law-related topics for the magazine, “GPSOLO.”
Burda had a relationship with NEOCH, and was interested in attempting to stabilize the legal assistance program after the previous staff had left. Burda remarked, “I wanted the position with CHLAP/NEOCH to use my legal and management skills to provide legal assistance to an overlooked client base. I knew I had the skills, talents and interests to succeed in the position and build on what Doug Lawrence started.”
Burda has many goals she wants to achieve while working at NEOCH. She is currently working on further developing the program to provide legal assistance to the homeless community. She intends to initiate monthly seminars dealing with different legal issues, so individuals will be better informed about their rights and how to exercise them. Burda believes that just because a person is homeless does not mean one loses his/her rights under the law.
Burda feels that teaching people about their rights and available legal services will empower them to stand up for themselves. She later outlined the needs in the homeless community, “If anything, people in desperate circumstances need even greater protection.” Burda believes that even though resources are limited educating individuals about their rights will benefit everyone.
After a couple of months, Burda is excited about the program. She said, “After a month, the most rewarding experience is knowing there are many lawyers who want to provide legal assistance to those who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.” Her future plans include wanting to expand the number of sites we (the lawyers) serve. She is working on increasing the number of volunteer intake attorneys as well as the number of attorneys willing to accept cases for direct representation. She also hopes to expand the law student participation. By having law students take part in the Legal Assistance Program, she believes that this will give the students a chance to practice real law with real people, along with experience they will never receive in the classroom. The future benefit of having law students take part in the program is it also sets a pattern of performing pro bono work that will carry over into their practices. These are some of Burda’s goals to make the Legal Assistances Program a successful one as well as her goals for the CHLAP program.
The question most frequently asked of everyone working in the homeless community is what is the solution. Burda looks for leadership from elected officials and civic leaders to push solutions. She said, “I think we need to reassess our priorities.” The powers that be in the City and County seem more concerned with high visibility knick knacks like the convention center than addressing the needs of the people according to Burda.
Homeless people are a problem most people want to ignore 11 months out of the year. This past year, the avoidance crossed over into the Christmas season. We have the money to fund wars, military equipment and foreign aid, but refuse to provide for people in this country. We are the richest country in the world yet we have people who go hungry every day and have no place to live. This is criminal. Food, housing, clothing, health care are not luxuries; they are necessities for life. So far, the courts and politicians seem to think otherwise. We need to reassess our values and live up to the Judeo-Christian teachings we profess to follow. “He who says he loves God whom he does not see and does not love his neighbor whom he does see, that man is a liar.” We do not talk the talk or walk the walk.”
Further on in the interview I began to ask Burda some more personal questions about what she likes to do in her free time and here are some of her responses. Burda most admires Katharine Hepburn because she feels Hepburn did thing her way according to her conscience and made on excuses for her life and learned from her mistakes. Burda quoted, “Cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”
Burda’s favorite book is 84 Charing Cross Road, because she first read this book when it came out in 1970. She states that this book is comprised of letters between people who have never met and the letters reflect their lives and the relationship that develop between them. Burda tries to read this book once a year because it is her favorite novel.
Burda later discussed her favorite movies she said that “ A Majority of One” starring Rosalind Russell and Alec Guiness was her all time favorite. A close second is “Lady for a Day” by Frank Capra, the story about Apple Annie.
When asked what her favorite place to shop was Burda responded by saying “she doesn’t care to shop.” She prefers to do her shopping in catalogs or on the Internet. But, if she had to pick a store she liked best she likes REI. Unfortunately, for her they do not have any REI’s in Ohio so she tries to visit one when she can.
Burda’s most prize possession is a handwritten letter she received from Katherine Hepburn, it is a thank you note she sent to Burda following a fundraiser performance of the play, “A Matter of Gravity,” Burda’s name and address was the only one she had so she received that thank you letter while everyone else got a copy.
Burda’s favorite outdoor activity is to cycle, she has a Terry Classic bicycle and she says that it is wonderful because Georgena Terry built it, especially for women.
Burda attended private Catholic grade schools, which provided a great deal of motivation. Burda remembered her favorite teacher as Sister Louise Anne from Holy Name High School. Sister Louise Anne taught English. She said that Sister Anne, “scared the daylights out of us, but was a wonderful teacher.” If you were doing your best she’d do anything for you. But, God help you if you were slacking off. She showed no mercy. I learned how to write from her and shall always be grateful. She’s gone now, but I told her many times how much I appreciated her as a teacher. She believed in her students and believed we were all capable of great things. Everyone needs someone like that in his or her lives.”
Burda keeps a positive attitude in the face of so many negative stories from people experiencing homelessness. “You win some, you lose some, but you always dress for the game,” Burda said. She is committed to providing superior services to people often forgotten by the judicial system.
If you are interested in receiving further information about the Legal Assistance Program, please call CHLAP at 216/XXX-XXXX
Copyright by the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio published April 2003 Issue 60