by Michael O’Connor

A new report from the US Department of Veterans Affairs shows that homeless veterans across the country could benefit from the help of a lawyer.  The Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group (CHALENG) survey asked homeless veterans abut their needs and wants.  Nearly half of the top 10 unmet needs identified by homeless veterans involved civil legal aid in order to resolve issues such as child support, restoring driver’s licenses, outstanding warrants and fines, and preventing eviction and foreclosure.

While there is a constitutional guarantee for legal representation in criminal matters, no such guarantee exists for civil legal matters.  Therefore, homeless veterans who risked their lives for the safety of our country are left to sort through their complicated legal issues alone, without the assistance of a lawyer.

The Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN), a project of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, is seeking to correct this problem.  Through a network of regional providers and a telephone hotline, IL-AFLAN is providing free legal help to veterans, active duty military and their spouses and dependents across Illinois.

This month, the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), an organization that focuses on filling gaps in resources with pro bono volunteers, joined IL-AFLAN.  PILI will recruit, train and support volunteer attorneys to start helping veterans across the state.  Attorneys at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Prairie State Legal Services, and SIU School of Law Veteran Legal Clinic are now collaborating via a hotline point of entry that allows a veteran to call a single phone number and get connected with the appropriate legal provider.  As part of IL-AFLAN over the past year, these civil legal providers have helped well over 500 veterans and active duty members with hundreds of types of legal problems.

This innovation is making a difference.  At the moment, within five minutes of calling the IL-AFLAN hotline, a veteran can speak with an attorney.  Roughly 65 percent of the time that attorney can completely solve the caller’s problem by providing them with instructions, advice and help completing forms and documents.  When more than a phone call is needed, the caller is referred to an appropriate IL-AFLAN member, such as those mentioned above.

This was the case for a Vietnam era veteran dying of colon cancer.  With just weeks left to live and his condition worsening, IL-AFLAN attorneys at Prairie State Legal Services traveled to his hospice care and home to prepare six end-of-life legal documents ensuring that his affairs were in order and his loved ones were taken care of.  Prairie State staff not only drafted, witnessed, and notarized these documents over several days, they also spent several hours with the veteran, listening to his stories and making sure that his wishes for his property and end of life medical care were understood and realized.  The veteran passed away with the peace of mind that came from the exceptional care and lawyering of IL-AFLAN attorneys.

Since its launch last year, the entire IL-AFLAN statewide network has provided civil legal aid, ranging from brief advice to extended courtroom representation, to over 2,000 veterans and service members.  Many of the legal problems veterans face are directly tied to economic, family, and housing stability.  Legal help prevents small problems from becoming big problems, and help people move back from the brink of losing a home, their economic livelihood, or family stability.

Civil legal aid can help prevent and decrease veteran homelessness.  Attorneys who want to help can volunteer with PILI, where they will receive support, guidance, and malpractice insurance.

If you are a veteran, active duty military, or the spouse or dependents of a veteran or active member of the military in need of legal assistance, call 855-IL-AFLAN (855-452-3526) to talk to an attorney about discharge upgrades, benefits appeals, or civil legal problems like family, housing, and consumer issues.

Michael O’Connor is the executive director of Prairie State Legal Services.