Surviving the Summer with Legal Aid
Thank God we’re below sea-level.
I’m sure we’ve all had this thought. If we work for a shoring company. Or if we dream of a boating commute. Or if we move back home with our parents in our mid-to-(admittedly)-late 30s.
If New Orleans were not below sea-level, for instance, I would have to now mention I live in my parents’s basement. Au contraire. I live in my parents’s guestroom! That sounds so much better. One indignity spared.
I do realize how fortunate I’ve got it. Last year my brother’s family took me in without a second thought, giving me a spot near the one local law school lacking enough sense to not ignore my application. And now I get to go home to my parents—or as I’ve been telling them: to live with them for the only time before their late-in-life convalescence.
Life is good. There’s off-street parking, low rent, and this old-school thing called cable television.
Oh, and snoring. Like an office copy machine, the output of each generation of “Peter Finney” is not quite as strong as the one before. My grandfather shook the pilings with each catnap, my dad just the floorboards. (I, of course, don’t snore at all. Pretty sure. I would know, right?)
So when I heard the steady backfire of a snore at work last week, you could forgive me for thinking I was right at home. Turns out, I was at someone else’s.
Friday concludes my full-time internship centered on the city-run Low-Barrier Shelter, home to one hundred chronically homeless residents.
For 10 weeks, I’ve been working with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), the legal aid firm in New Orleans, assisting clients within 125% of the poverty line with all matter of civil—read, generally not criminal—legal needs. It’s also not the only internship I’m carrying this summer, as eagle-eyed readers would have caught that I’m also shadowing a federal court judge.
When I mention both internships, the conversation always jumps to the federal judge stuff first. And, yeah, there’s plenty of interesting elements to that, including but not limited to the courtroom parties named plaintiff, defendant, and dance.
But most of my time is spent in that other world, waking up a snoring client to walk him through another disability questionnaire. Oh, you didn’t find another attorney who had you sign paperwork near your top bunk perch, Mr. Smith? Thanks for the clarification. You can go back to sleep.
When I heard the litany of units comprising SLLS, I let out an involuntary “pray for us,” and then, with complete interview finesse, asked, “Could you tell me more about that homeless one?”
Over the course of 10 weeks, I have amassed 50 client folders. Fifty folks quite poor, mainly homeless, all in search of an advocate. An SLLS attorney answers that advocate call.
As we know, though, lawyers undeservedly do have a bad reputation. They really should have a much worse reputation, right?
Which was my mindset when making a late-May visit to one of those named folders. Our would-be client was not in his temporary housing. His sister went on the hunt. I sat there, waiting in the car of my managing attorney. Five minutes passed. Where is she going to find him? Ten minutes passed. How can she possibly find him? Fifteen minutes passed. Ooh, the attorney is reaching for her phone to call the far-flung sister of that wayward brother.
Turns out our client wouldn’t be making the meeting. As the call was being made, he was being booked at OPP. Man with a yellow-pages-thick mental health record gets booked for disturbing the peace. Yawn. That doesn’t even cut into Smiley Anders page-three real estate in the Metro Section.
What I was really interested in was the reaction of my managing attorney. Maybe others were blending in, but she seemed to be the only JD on that street in the Hoffman Triangle that morning. And now even more of her time is wasted? Here comes the explosion!
“I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be so hard for you and for him. Please let us know when he gets out so we can restart the paperwork.” Well, that was unexpected. “You can’t sweat the small stuff,” my managing advocate explained as we turned back to the office.
And in those 50 folders, there’s a lot of small stuff. A lot of paperwork filed, briefs written, automated-menu government agency calls recorded—all of whom having “menu options that have recently changed,” by the way. In those folders, there are also 50 people, each with a story, much more tragic than anything I’ve ever known.
Americans are two paychecks away from homelessness. Isn’t that the line?
How long have you been experiencing homelessness? That’s one of my intake questions. I have yet to get “two paychecks ago” as the response, though. Our clients have seen it because they have been out in it for a long time. Any safety net long since stretched taut—and then, pop.
But aren’t these street people just addicts and criminals, barnacles on the hull of the USS America? I don’t know to answer that. I’ve kinda stepped away from the whole judgment seat gig, remember?
Rather than answer a leading question, better to pose my own: are nights of homelessness, scores of medically documentable physical and mental health treatments, and often years waiting for a disability finding—is all of that worth the gilded reward of $794/month? Because that’s trampled over pot of gold lying at the end of this Social Security disability rainbow. Is that really gaming the system?
Or is that the amount someone down and out might need to just get a foothold? A safety net for the one that popped. As it’s officially and rightly called, Supplemental Security Income.
I look down that list of folders and I don’t see 50 failures. I see 50 survivors.
And I also see myself. There, but by the grace of God, go I.
I don’t have a history of inpatient mental health stays. I was never pimped out by a parent to help pay the bills. I have never been without dozens of friends, some family, and at least one advocate.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
Life’s about choices, to be sure. But some of us get to play with a solitaire deck, others just at the blackjack table. Hit me.
There, but by the grace of God, go I.
Below sea-level and in my parents’s guestroom. And oh-so grateful.
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. Names and details have been altered to maintain client confidentiality.
Here is a voicemail from one of those fifty. I received his permission to use his poetry—not to show how wonderful a summer clerk I am but to let you hear his actual voice and his extemporaneous thoughts