As we celebrate Veterans Day, Congress is debating legislation that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to directly fund civil legal aid for veterans. The Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act would vastly expand access to justice for millions of veterans facing civil legal challenges by making lawyers available at VA medical centers where many veterans receive their healthcare.
I am part of a team of lawyers that provides civil legal aid to veterans through legal clinics conducted onsite at VA hospitals in New York. I have seen the enormous difference legal help can make in veterans’ health. Compared to the civilian population, veterans are at increased risk of homelessness, are more likely to experience disabilities and poor health, and women veterans are more likely to have been victims of sexual assault; legal problems bear on all of these social ills. According to a 2017 VA survey, four of the top ten unmet needs for homeless veterans involve legal problems.
With a staff of just five attorneys funded by private foundations and firms, the LegalHealth Veterans Initiative will serve nearly 1,000 veterans this year in VA medical centers’ behavioral health, geriatrics, and women’s health clinics. Working closely with veterans’ healthcare providers, these “medical-legal partnership” clinics will reduce veteran homelessness by preventing evictions, expand access to needed veterans’ services by upgrading bad paper discharges, and stabilize incomes for veterans with significant health needs.
VA hospitals—part of the fabric of the veteran community, and places where many low-income and disabled veterans receive their healthcare — have been perfect homes for our clinics, and with sufficient funding other VAs could develop similar partnerships. The VA has helped to establish (through non-VA funding) 17 medical-legal partnerships at VA medical centers. But the vast majority of the VA’s 168 medical centers do not have an onsite attorney to help sick veterans.
Deployed around the country, VA medical-legal partnerships could improve health and reduce homelessness for veterans. A recent report prepared for the New York City Bar Association found that providing attorneys to tenants facing eviction would reduce homelessness, along with medical, shelter and law enforcement costs—and ultimately save the City money. The case is so compelling, in fact, that the City recently passed a law that mandates providing free attorneys in housing court for eligible low-income tenants. Yet the potential benefits go well beyond housing: the World Health Organization’s seminal study on the social determinants of health presented clear evidence of the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and poor health, and the American Academy of Suicidology lists legal difficulties as events that can increase the risk of suicide.
By reducing veterans’ legal challenges and increasing their incomes—by securing veterans’ benefits, increasing workplace accommodations for veterans with disabilities, and stabilizing family law issues—we can help to improve veterans’ quality of life and impact their health.
To be sure, medical-legal partnerships are not the only way to provide civil legal aid to veterans, and VA funding for veterans legal services would not completely solve the enormous problems of veteran homelessness, benefits backlogs and suicide. The Act would merely authorize the VA secretary to fund civil legal aid for veterans and the secretary would be free to experiment with different models of service delivery. Moreover, the initial pilot program would likely be small and additional funds—from city and state governments, private foundations and law firms, and the federal Legal Services Corporation—would be needed if we are to meet all of the legal needs of veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ motto—taken from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address—is “[T]o care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” A great deal has been written about our failure to care for our veterans by not providing them the best possible healthcare through the VA health system—and progress has been made on that front. But we cannot pretend that quality health care to veterans in crisis does not include helping with their legal problems. This Veterans Day, Congress should enact the Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act so that our veterans do not have to face homelessness and health decline as a result of preventable and fixable legal challenges. There could be no greater way to honor those who have served.
Keith Hoffmann is an attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group.