The Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia’s Homeless Outreach Project Finds Success by Combining Legal Aid with Social Services

Homeless clients, especially those who have significant physical and/or mental disabilities, often have difficulty reaching out to legal aid organizations to obtain a lawyer to enforce their rights.

Whether or not this is due to the demanding, full-time condition of homelessness, it’s simply not realistic to expect them to reach out for legal help. In order to address this, the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia (LASEV) established the Homeless Outreach Project (HOP) through a grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation in 2015, which consists of just one attorney and one social worker.

HOP’s mission is to make themselves available by going to where the homeless individuals are. The HOP team goes out to shelters, soup kitchens and other food distribution places, streets, libraries, and parks where the homeless are and conducts intake. (LASEV’s most common intake method, however, is its centralized telephone intake system.)

From the start of the grant in December 2015 to August 2017, the HOP team opened 374 cases and closed 279. Of those closed cases, 211 have been extended service and 68 have been advice or brief service. While HOP was established in 2015, LASEV has been providing legal assistance to homeless individuals for more than 10 years.

What doesn’t really show up in those numbers is the impact of the social worker. As one-half of the team, the social worker helps clients fill out paperwork, get forms signed by the doctor, and get into housing. This illustrates the true value of the project. Having a staff member present to help with those necessary actions; drive them to a doctor’s appointment or sit with them while they fill out an application; or just look for people when they don’t show up for an appointment, then finding them and bringing them in for the next appointment, makes all the difference. Additionally, for homeless veterans, the social worker helps them get housing through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program. Without this social services component, the project wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

What the team lacks in size, it makes up for in efficiency. Although the social worker works part time and the attorney is in the office for part of the day, they are collectively out in the field every weekday, cutting away at the hundreds of people living on the street in LASEV’s service area every year.

In the brief amount of time since LASEV started HOP, things have really changed. The first time the project’s attorney went to the library in Portsmouth, it was a waste of time. Now, people know who she is and they line up whenever she comes in. In the summer of 2017, she opened six to seven cases per week just at the library. And there are many more success stories to share.