July 8, 2016; Washington Post

In a commentary article from the Washington Post’s PostEverything section, authors Martha Bergmark and Ellen Lawton reflect on a new survey by the Veterans Administration which shows that lack of legal assistance is one of the top concerns of veterans and the people who work with veterans. As the authors stress, “Legal assistance is often critical to ensure that veterans find justice and get the benefits they have earned—and can keep a roof over their heads.”

The underlying VA report is a laundry list of needs identified in a survey of over six thousand homeless veterans and stakeholders The survey is mandated by federal law to help VA plan for services.

Unlike the right to legal representation in a criminal proceeding, which was mandated by the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, civil legal representation in cases like eviction, domestic and public benefit cases is provided by nonprofit law firms with both public and private support. Traditionally, legal representation has not been a part of the package of health and social services the Veterans Administration provides. Although VA staff have been leaders in fighting homelessness and collaborators in local homeless coalitions, their efforts have primarily focused on removing barriers to finding and retaining housing and on creating special need housing for vets with disabilities. More recently, VA staff have collaborated with local housing authorities in the Veterans Administration Supportive Housing (VASH) program, which combines housing choice vouchers from HUD with supportive services from the VA. VASH has a good record in providing assistance to reduce or eliminate veteran homelessness in many parts of the country.

In their article, Ms. Bergmark and Ms. Lawton point out that Congress could expand funding for legal services in a bill currently under consideration.

Emerging partnerships between civil legal-aid and community health and housing organizations can permanently transform veterans’ lives but require investment to meet the need. Most partnerships struggle to leverage existing, scarce legal-aid resources, alongside private philanthropy. The Department of Veterans Affairs has taken steps to raise awareness of legal needs and solutions. Congress can help by passing the veterans omnibus bill, section 608 of which would authorize the VA to provide funding to organizations that provide civil legal services to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

So where do legal services fit into homelessness prevention? Two areas are critical: challenging barriers to acceptance of veterans and defending against evictions when a veteran is faced with possible displacement from housing.

VA staffers have encountered barriers to the use of VASH vouchers by landlords who have a policy of “no Section 8.” Sometimes that prohibition arises from a landlord’s unwillingness to accept a federal program subsidy—in most jurisdictions, that’s not illegal. But if the reason for denying a veteran is actually based on a fear of mental or behavioral health disabilities, then legal services can make a difference. Because proving discrimination can be a time consuming task of developing legal evidence, an experienced legal team can make all the difference.

In addition to challenging denials based on discrimination, legal services attorneys can provide defenses against eviction. Tenants who are not represented in eviction court are a profound disadvantage in front of a magistrate who’s accustomed to one pro forma hearing after another, day after day. This problem is not unique to veterans. In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond cites universal eviction defense as a key to breaking the cycle of eviction that propels households into homelessness. In New York City, expanding eviction defense is being tested as a way to keep families out of the homeless system of shelters and temporary housing.

Ironically, the two big solutions for homelessness are the same for vets as for low-income households generally. Universal housing subsidies and universal civil legal defense could be added to the U.S. social safety net as core programs. Sadly, instead of working towards a comprehensive solution, multiple constituent groups end up fighting for funding for their special needs, sometimes at the expense of another equally worthy demographic group. We legislate by the crisis group of the week.

One example: At the beginning of the Great Recession, the Dodd-Frank legislation created a right to legal services for homeowners who were otherwise ineligible for assistance because of their “underwater” assets. That funding has lapsed as the foreclosure crisis has abated, but now the VA and veterans advocates are fighting for special funding for their homelessness prevention needs. Soon, you can expect to see special needs funding for civil legal services for returning citizens because, after all, getting former inmates into stable housing reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer dollars.

Ben Metcalf, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing at HUD, was asked by Affordable Housing magazine what one change he would make in housing policy. His answer came as a question:

Why are food stamps, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit an entitlement, but housing assistance isn’t? I’d follow the Bipartisan Policy Commission’s recent proposal to make federal vouchers an entitlement for extremely low-income families; that would cost about $29 billion a year—a fraction of what we pay for the mortgage interest deduction, which is about $74 billion a year.

—Spencer Wells