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Law Students Give a Voice to the Homeless

August 06, 1987|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

Lawyers are trained advocates. They are taught to gather facts, interpret the law and argue their clients' cases persuasively in court.

Several hundred law students this summer are learning that lesson in an unusual place by representing unlikely clients: the homeless and almost homeless waiting in line in a welfare office.

Several legal groups are sponsoring a summer program that brings law students to county welfare offices to "advocate" on behalf of scores of indigent clients whose problems include welfare checks lost in the mail, suspension of their benefits and denial of food stamps, not to mention long lines.

One recent Wednesday afternoon, some of their new "clients" had been waiting since 8 a.m. to talk to a bureaucrat about their problems when several law students arrived at the Department of Public Social Services office on Skid Row.

Receive Training

The students--from law schools across the country, all working this summer for Los Angeles-area law firms--first received about an hour of training in the law of "government entitlement programs" at the offices of Public Counsel, a pro bono legal group sponsored by local bar associations. ( Pro bono refers to free legal service to benefit the public.)

On this day, Deborah Garvey, a lawyer from the Inner City Law Center, was doing the training.

The students learned that welfare checks are frequently lost because the recipients don't stay at one address long enough to receive them. For those without a permanent address, the checks can be mailed to the local welfare office and picked up there, but many of the recipients are unaware of this, Garvey explained.

The welfare program is really a "workfare" program. In exchange for a monthly "general relief" payment of $280, recipients who are able must work 10 to 12 days a month. If they miss work for any reason, there is a two-month penalty, during which time the checks stop. "It is enforcing homelessness for 60 days," Garvey says.

However, the 60-day penalty can be waived if absence from work was based on "good cause." A welfare recipient may have been in the hospital or in jail or perhaps didn't know where to report for work because he couldn't read. And the penalty should be waived in those cases, Garvey said.

Waived Penalty

Since the law-student program began earlier this summer, practically every 60-day penalty that one of the law students has handled has been waived, she said.

Because there are no overly complex issues involved in this field of law, in theory at least, the welfare recipients should be able to have the same success as the law students.

But the students soon learn that they can be much more persuasive than their indigent clients. And they don't have to wait in line nearly as long. They have prompt access to top officials in each welfare office they visit, according to Garvey. "Walking in wearing nylons and ties," she told them, "you will have more access than they (the clients) will have in a lifetime."

In recent weeks, their successes included: one client whose check was late and needed money for medication received his check the very day a law student intervened on his behalf; another's case was reopened after it had been mistakenly closed because her check went to the wrong address; a third was given a permanent card for food stamps--after having only a temporary card for the previous 11 months.

The new clients are worlds apart from those whom the students have met working for big corporate law firms, where some summer clerks are paid more than $900 a week. If these clients are not already homeless, they are one step away.

Almost half have a history of psychiatric hospitalization, Garvey said. Many may seem paranoid, she said, adding that paranoia seemed a "reasonable reaction" in their circumstances.

But unlike in the sometimes faceless world of corporate law, these would-be lawyers can see in the faces of their grateful clientele the immediate impact of their advocacy skills.

Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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