“Meeting basic human needs to reduce suffering and empower lives.” That’s the mission of Face to Face Inc., a Pennsylvania nonprofit located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, which pursues the mission through its variety of programs for the poor, including a free legal center.

In 2009, Face to Face’s legal center became a new recipient of a grant under the Philadelphia Bar Foundation’s annual grant program for legal services organizations. The work and history of Face to Face’s long-running legal clinic may not be known by many outside of Northwest Philadelphia, but its development shows how helping the poor with their legal problems can fit into the larger mission of caring for their broader needs.

Face to Face has a holistic approach to providing services to the poor. It offers free meals on Friday evenings and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; in addition to its legal center, it has a health center run by nurses, an after-school and summer camp program for children and offers social work services and arts and writing programs. It recently added a “washeteria” — a showering and laundry facility for neighbors who are homeless or lack water service.

The services offered by Face to Face evolved over a 27-year span that began with the initiation of a soup kitchen by St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. The legal center was established a few years later by the late James Lafferty, a career Community Legal Services lawyer, and a small group of lawyers who were St. Vincent’s church members. Lafferty and the other lawyers had been volunteering to serve meals to the poor in the soup kitchen. Alleviation of hunger, though, was not the soup kitchen guests’ only need; it became apparent that many of them had legal problems as well. To address these problems, Lafferty collaborated with attorney Sandy Ballard, then the director of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Homeless Advocacy Project, to establish the St. Vincent’s Legal Clinic, operating under the auspices of HAP. Lafferty’s small group began seeing clients twice a month on Saturdays while the soup kitchen was open. Over time, the volunteer attorney base expanded to include lawyers from the Philadelphia legal community at large, not just St. Vincent’s church members.

In 1997 the soup kitchen, legal clinic and a few other social services offered by St. Vincent’s were “spun off” into an independent nonprofit corporation — Face to Face, which eventually changed the names of the soup kitchen and legal clinic to the Dining Room and Legal Center. In 2008, as part of Face to Face’s strategic plan, the organization expanded its legal services to meet increased client demand. It hired a part time staff attorney to direct the legal center. The director is assisted by numerous volunteer attorneys, as well as law students from several area law schools. In 2009 the Legal Center became independent of HAP to achieve additional flexibility in serving its unique client base.

The legal center’s clients typically come to Face to Face for its biggest attraction — the free hot meals provided in its dining room. To make it convenient for guests in need of legal services, the legal center is now open during meal time every Saturday, with office hours on Tuesday mornings for additional intake and follow-up. This on-site convenience is important, as clients often can’t afford the public transport fares to go to more traditional providers of free legal services. Also, clients who are elderly, or physically or mentally disabled, prefer getting legal services in a neighborhood facility familiar to them.

In addition to serving the participants of the organization’s other programs, the legal center is open to members of the neighborhood and surrounding community who meet specified low-income guidelines. Saturday intake hours are important to clients who hold jobs, whose work schedules make it difficult for them to meet with attorneys during the week.

While some cases must be litigated, the bulk of the legal work involves zealous advocacy with corporate and agency personnel at whatever level is necessary to solve clients’ problems. Most of the legal center’s clients are unable to navigate public-benefits systems on their own. All are poor and most are unemployed. Many are elderly, mentally ill, physically disabled or substance-dependent.

Obtaining a birth certificate or legal identification, seemingly simple, becomes complex when a client possesses neither of these documents, yet often they are the key to a client being able to obtain a job or public benefits. Legal identification issues are so significant in the legal center’s practice that it devotes a specific monthly clinic to helping clients obtain this vital documentation. This monthly “Birth Certificate/Credit Report Clinic” is run by the center’s volunteer law students. In addition, education regarding frequently encountered legal problems is provided in a group format to clients and potential clients.

The scope of matters handled by the legal center is dictated by clients’ legal needs, within practical restraints. The center represents clients in obtaining Social Security Income and veterans benefits. It also handles landlord-tenant issues, utility issues, consumer credit issues including student loans and identity theft, driver’s license restoration and pension issues, to name a few. The legal center also has referred matters like tangled title, estate, grandparent custody, child support and collections to law firms that have agreed to handle them on a pro bono basis.

Beyond attending to subsistence and legal needs, all of Face to Face’s personnel and volunteers subscribe to its philosophy of “reaching across the table” to recognize and acknowledge the common humanity they share with their guests and clients, many of whom have been treated as invisible, sometimes for their entire lives. According them the dignity to which every person is entitled ensures that the Face to Face mission is fulfilled. •

Niki Ludt, a 1983 graduate of Temple University School of Law, is the director of the Face to Face Legal Center and has been involved with this legal clinic for eighteen years.