2014-02-28 / Front Page

Lawyers help homeless move forward

By Julia Rogers Hook


According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Repor t to Congress (AHAR), there were almost 5,000 homeless people in South Carolina in 2013. According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Repor t to Congress (AHAR), there were almost 5,000 homeless people in South Carolina in 2013. After a harried month of snow, sleet, and ice storms along with a couple of earthquakes, the state of South Carolina has been paying extra attention to its homeless population. According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR), there were almost 5,000 homeless people in South Carolina in 2013.

Lack of affordable housing, low wages, domestic violence, physical and mental health issues, and substance abuse are some of the main reasons people become homeless. In Columbia, a full-time worker needs to earn $14.29 per hour or work 79 hours per week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But if that person has legal issues such as a police record or owes back child support, he can’t get a job. That in itself can start a cruel sequence of chronic homelessness.


Project HELP Clinic is a mission of the Richland County Bar Association Public Service Committee Project HELP Clinic is a mission of the Richland County Bar Association Public Service Committee And not many homeless people can afford a lawyer to help them with their legal woes.

Enter Project Homeless Experience Legal Protection, also known as Project HELP.

Project HELP is the Richland County Bar Association’s flagship pro bono initiative. The HELP Clinic is a mission of the Richland County Bar Association Public Service Committee in conjunction with the South Carolina Bar Pro Bono Program. It holds clinics where men and women who are trying to get back on their feet can receive free legal advice.

“One of the problems many homeless people face is they have a record of some sort,” said Will Dillard, one of the volunteer lawyers for Project HELP. “It’s a vicious cycle for the homeless…they do want to work, but they can’t because of something they may have done years ago or even as a juvenile. Our lawyers meet with them, and we try to help them settle the problem or, if it’s warranted, get it expunged from their records.”

Since 2007, the HELP Clinic has provided free legal consultations to hundreds of homeless individuals in the Midlands. The local clinic is part of the nationwide Project HELP program, currently active in over 15 cities around the country and founded in 2004 in New Orleans by federal district court Judge Jay Zainey.

In the words of Judge Zainey on the Project HELP website, “As lawyers, we have an obligation to use the special skills we’ve been given to give back to the community and minimize homelessness as best we can.”

With all of the bad press these people endure— they are called drug addicts, alcoholics, and worse—the Project HELP organization understands these folks have the same needs as any human being, Dillard said.

“There is no one ‘silver bullet’ solution to the problems any of these people have,” Dillard said. “But with our free law clinics, they can sit down with a trained lawyer, have someone talk to them one on one, ook them in the eye, and listen to them. I think that means a lot to a person.”

During the law clinics,

Project HELP volunteers sit with homeless individuals for half-hour consultation sessions and provide basic information and guidance about family law, criminal record expungement, government benefits, and other legal issues. The goal of the clinic is to actively focus on specific legal issues blocking the paths of homeless individuals towards transitioning into permanent housing and employment. HELP Clinic volunteers from the private bar are a critical part of this initiative, Dillard said.

“The only requirements to volunteer with Project HELP are a law license and a willingness to help,” he said. “Many volunteers start working with the clinic during their first year of practice.”

He said the “seasoned lawyers” will help the new ones get ready to work with the people who come to the clinics.

“New volunteers are provided with support, including the opportunity to sit in on consultation sessions with other attorneys in order to get comfortable with the way the clinic operates, before we send them in alone,” he said.

Lonnie Doles is one of the volunteers, and he said he was “hooked” after his first clinic.

“These people just want someone to hear them,” he said. “The general public tends to look the other way when they see a homeless person. They want to help, but they don’t know how, so they just look away.”

Doles said there are almost as many reasons people come to the clinics as there are people.

“One man came to ask how to get his identification papers back,” Doles said. “He had gotten robbed, and all his paperwork was in his backpack. He literally didn’t know how to go about getting any identification for himself.”

The clinic volunteers work with people on divorce cases, child custody battles, and a wide variety of other problems that could hold a person back from moving forward into a better life, Dillard said.

“So many times the homeless are thought of as lazy or not wanting to work, and that’s not always the situation at all,” he said. “They need to know how to cut through the red tape, and in some cases, such as the vets or the disabled, they are even due benefits they aren’t aware of. We try to help them maneuver through all that.”

The Columbia HELP Clinic is held from 8:30- 10:00 a.m. on the first and third Thursdays of every month at the Transitions shelter at 2025 Main Street in downtown Columbia. People needing a lawyer don’t need to be residents of the shelter.

“ This clinic helps the homeless, and we’re proud of that,” Dillard said. “But really, it’s helping all of the volunteers too. It’s a great way to hone your legal skills and keep yourself sharp and up to date with the law. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

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