Pittsburgh homeless receive legal help and start seeing 'some relief and hope'

Project HELP gives the homeless in Allegheny County free access to an attorney to help them 'navigate through the legal system.' The response from homeless people has been 'overwhelming.'

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Mark Baxter has been homeless for five years. His troubles began when he was working as a roofer for friends. There was a dispute over pay, he couldn't make his rent and he lost his home. That was it.

Since then, Mr. Baxter has taken advantage of a number of services for the homeless in the area, including those offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as Operation Safety Net, a program run by Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

Recently, Mr. Baxter, who has been unable to find steady employment and has a variety of medical problems, thought he might qualify for Social Security benefits.

But it is difficult to secure government benefits without a permanent home or someone to help negotiate the system, as many of those who are homeless have learned.

This fall, the Pittsburgh Mercy Foundation and Operation Safety Net received a $43,000 grant from McAuley Ministries to implement Project HELP -- Homeless Experience Legal Protection.

It was modeled on the original program, founded by a judge in New Orleans five years ago. Similar programs are now available in 16 other cities across the country.

Linda Sheets, program director for Operation Safety Net, recognized the need for legal assistance in the homeless community a couple of years ago while working on the organization's strategic plan. Then she learned about Project HELP.

Among the problems that it can address: lost identification; housing trouble; filing for government benefits; and even assistance in minor criminal cases.

"These individuals do not have access to telephones to even schedule appointments with lawyers," Ms. Sheets said.

She is hopeful that the 150 to 200 unsheltered homeless people in Allegheny County might get or maintain housing if they are able to obtain government benefits.

"It has been an overwhelming response from the homeless population for these legal services," Ms. Sheets said. "They now have an attorney. They have somebody who can hear their story, be by their side and navigate through the legal system.

"I see some relief and hope."

On a recent day, Mr. Baxter and 10 other homeless people met with attorneys at the Operation Safety Net headquarters on Forbes Avenue, Uptown.

Marla Presley, a labor and employment attorney, was honest with Mr. Baxter. She warned him that in the majority of cases, Social Security disability claims are denied on the first try.

But in the appeal process, she said, they're likely to have more luck.

As she steered Mr. Baxter, 53, through the benefits application, he revealed small tidbits about his life.

He was in the Army and discharged in 1976. He spent most of his life working as a roofer, leaving him with bad knees. He's suffered a number of head injuries that have left him with constant headaches and frequent dizziness.

"It's hurting, and I'm in pain, but I've sort of gotten used to it," said Mr. Baxter, who has recently been staying at the Shepherd's Heart shelter, Uptown. "It's not that I can't work. Just when I do, there's a lot of pain."

This past summer, Mr. Baxter worked full time for the VA's H. John Heinz III VA Progressive Care Center in O'Hara, doing landscaping and maintenance. He's hoping to find a permanent job doing similar work.

Mr. Baxter has siblings in the area and parents. He has a girlfriend, and they've been together for 23 years. She's homeless, too.

Ms. Presley asked, "Have you ever been known by any other names?"

"No," Mr. Baxter responded. Then, joking, he added, "Well, yeah. But you can't say any of them."

After they finished the application, Ms. Presley explained the importance of meeting filing deadlines for an appeal if he is denied.

She took information from him about the physicians he's seen and where he's been treated, and the process was done.

It took less than an hour.

"One of our ethical obligations as lawyers is to provide pro bono legal services to those in need, and it doesn't happen as often as it should," Ms. Presley said.

She has gone out with Operation Safety Net workers to visit the street homeless overnight.

"It's hard to help someone deal with legal problems standing on the street in the middle of the night," she said.

So Project HELP was a perfect fit.

She called her experience working with Mr. Baxter "rewarding."

"It would be a huge challenge for someone like Mark to fill out the application," she said.

Ms. Sheets agreed.

"The legal system can be complicated for anybody to understand," Ms. Sheets said.

Lisa Pampena, an attorney who has a particular interest in helping the homeless, believes the services offered will shave off months from the application process for receiving benefits.

"Sometimes people act faster if a lawyer asks," she said.

She has helped organize the program and recruit volunteers through the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership. Neighborhood Legal Services and from the Pittsburgh Paralegal Association.

"It just took off," Ms. Pampena said. "It was like a snowball effect."

Already, the clinic is staffed through next September. Appointments are scheduled for the second Friday of each month.

"I love what I do, but I felt like I wanted to give back on a different level and make a difference in someone's life," Ms. Pampena said. "Helping a really vulnerable segment of the population -- and giving them what I've learned -- attorneys should be doing more of it."

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published January 10, 2010 5:00 AM


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