Accessing legal services can be a daunting task, especially if you are low-income or homeless. Although there are 43,000 lawyers in Chicago, only 300 of them are full-time legal aid attorneys charged with meeting the needs of the 1.3 million low-income people that qualify for help.
Recognizing this access to justice gap, the Pro Bono & Community Service Initiative (PBCSI) and Center for Public Interest Law launched the Neighborhood Legal Assistance Project (NLAP), a pro bono legal help desk for the homeless, just over two years ago on March 17, 2012. Since then, NLAP has provided critical legal services to hundreds of homeless individuals in the South Loop. Staffed by a dedicated cadre of law student volunteers and a supervising attorney, NLAP takes place every other Saturday morning at a breakfast program in Printer’s Row. Run by the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, the breakfast program feeds 150 people every Saturday morning.
"A legal help desk for the homeless that actually meets the homeless where they congregate was, at least to me, a completely unheard of proposition."
NLAP's primary focus is sealing and expunging clients' criminal records, which pose a barrier to employment, public benefits and public housing—all are key to climbing out of poverty. NLAP also focuses on obtaining state identification cards, which are essential to everyday life in the city of Chicago. Additionally, NLAP provides brief advice in a wide range of other areas, including housing, public benefits, contracts, wage theft and family law matters. Many of NLAP’s clients live at the Pacific Garden Mission and are not working with social workers.
As such, NLAP has collaborated with the St. Vincent de Paul Center in Lincoln Park to provide referrals for case management assistance with housing, employment and substance abuse assistance among other things. Since its launch in March 2012, NLAP has held more than 50 sessions and assisted more than 250 clients. Damon Ritenhouse, NLAP’s supervising attorney and DePaul alumnus, reflected on his experience with NLAP over the past two years:
“It is difficult to believe how quickly the last two years at NLAP have gone by. In that time, we have been able to help a great many clients with their legal issues. As importantly, the volunteers at NLAP have been there to listen as people share their personal stories. Working with the dedicated law students and attorneys who staff the NLAP desk, as well as the people at DePaul who support the program behind the scenes, has been a great privilege, and certainly one of the highlights of my legal career.”
NLAP is rooted in DePaul's Vincentian mission of social justice and service and outreach to the poor. According to Cheryl Price, director of PBCSI and one of NLAP’s founders, “Many of NLAP’s clients don't know what resources are available to them or how to access them. Without NLAP, they would not have access to legal assistance, as a trip to a legal aid office or the courthouse is often difficult, if not impossible for many of the folks we serve. So, NLAP is an access to justice project that exposes our law students to pro bono work, hopefully instilling a lifelong commitment to pro bono.”
“NLAP volunteers are serving and training to become better lawyers at the same time. It is experiential learning at its best.”
In addition to serving the poor, NLAP provides an important skill-building opportunity for law students. Through NLAP, students get hands-on experience and are able to hone their listening and client interviewing skills. They also get an opportunity to become experts in a substantive area of law. Price said, “NLAP volunteers are serving and training to become better lawyers at the same time. It is experiential learning at its best.”
Third-year student Sam Keen has been heavily involved with NLAP since its inception and currently serves as the NLAP student coordinator. “I’ll never forget how excited I was when I was first asked to be the student site coordinator of the Neighborhood Legal Assistance Project. A legal helpdesk for the homeless that actually meets the homeless where they congregate was, at least to me, a completely unheard of proposition," said Keen.
"Two years later and we haven’t skipped a beat. We’ve helped hundreds of people get state identification, dozens file petitions to seal or expunge criminal records, and countless more with a myriad of other legal problems ranging from appealing a denial of social security to revocation of guardianship. Though our accomplishments may seem small to some, I know firsthand the positive impact NLAP has had on the community it serves.”