Dozens of lawyers join forces with judges to provide free legal help to Portland-area homeless

PORTLAND, Maine – Local political leaders, advocates for homeless people, attorneys and judges gathered in Portland on Thursday afternoon to launch a free legal clinic to serve the area’s homeless population.

"Every day, we see people who would or could get out of the homeless shelters if they could just get clear of these lingering and longstanding legal issues – ID issues, issues related to child care, foreclosure issues, credit problems," said Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann, who attended an event Thursday to unveil the new program.

"Often those troubles can be relatively easily solved by a lawyer," said U.S. Circuit Judge V. Kermit Lipez at the Thursday event.

Swann said 475 people stayed in Portland homeless shelters the previous night, many sleeping on thin mats on the floor.

The newly unveiled Maine Homeless Legal Project is based on a model first introduced 10 years ago by U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey in his home district in New Orleans, and subsequently used in 21 other cities across the country.

Zainey, along with First Circuit judges William J. Kayatta Jr. and Lipez, as well as Maine District Court Judge E. Mary Kelly, attended the Thursday event to kick off the project.

"Some of us are cold, but we have warm houses to go home to. We can’t say the same about our homeless brothers and sisters," Zainey said, remarking that even after Hurricane Katrina left a swath of widespread devastation in his home state in 2005, "I had hope. I had expectations. I knew that I would have a house to go back to.

"A lot of the things we take for granted are life-altering [for them]," he continued. "They’re human beings just like me. They deserve everything that I deserve, and why am I getting it, while they’re not?"

Zainey said he first thought of the initial New Orleans-based program after volunteering in a soup kitchen.

"I said to myself, ‘Anybody can serve food, but we as lawyers can do so much more,’" he said. "Let’s use our God-given talent to assist those who are less fortunate."

The program calls for local law firms and their attorneys to volunteer to staff the weekly clinic for one month out of each year, during which time they will provide free legal consultations for individuals currently homeless.

The launch attracted dozens of southern Maine attorneys, who filed into a Portland City Hall ballroom – where caterers offered wine, bottled beer and hot food – for a reception aimed at drumming up interest among potential volunteers.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Thursday that he once read that Cumberland County had the second highest number of attorneys per capita in the country, behind just Washington, D.C.

"We have a tremendous amount of legal talent … to bring to the table to help those who aren’t often in a position to get legal help," the mayor said.

According to a program description distributed to reporters Thursday, homelessness is often "caused or compounded by legal issues, such as problems regarding tenancy, drivers licenses, child support or re-establishing acceptable identification."

Zainey said he once encountered a man who was homeless for nearly a decade because he ignored a summons for marijuana possession almost 10 years earlier in California, and the skipped court appearance triggered an arrest warrant and undermined his ability to find employment for years thereafter. Zainey said that, despite the fact that no East Coast police would bother extraditing him to California, the dated, minor offense prevented the man from getting off the streets.

The judge said once that man connected with an attorney, the lawyer was able to wipe the old record out with a single phone call.

"That’s the power we have as lawyers," he said.