A group of New Orleans judges went to a soup kitchen in February 2002 to help serve a meal, and among them was Judge Jay Zainey, of the U.S. District Court.
Zainey served the patrons a meal but still left feeling empty. He thought he could do more for the city’s homeless individuals.
"We as lawyers can do so much more," he said.
Zainey started the Homeless Experience Legal Protection program, and a branch of that organization is poised to launch in Portland, as the Maine Homeless Legal Clinic. Zainey and a group of judges, as well as Mayor Michael Brennan, Mark Swann, executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center, and bar association representatives encouraged members of Portland’s legal community to volunteer with the project, during a meeting on Thursday.
The clinic will be staffed by volunteers from Portland’s law firms and provide free legal services to homeless individuals. The clinic is the result of a collaboration between Preble Street Resource Center, the Volunteers Lawyers Project, Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the American Bar Association.
"There is a great need in our community to help homeless people with their legal needs," said David Soley, a Bernstein Shur shareholder.
Swann said Preble Street is excited to participate in the new legal clinic, saying many people who rely on the city’s homeless shelters are blocked from employment or more permanent housing because of an unresolved legal matter. He said lawyers who volunteer with the project could help get someone past the barrier that keeps them out of more stable housing.
Diane Dusini, president of the Maine Bar Association, said most of the issues lawyers will see are simple for them but can be daunting to someone experiencing homelessness, and prove life altering for that person.
Zainey said he heard a story about a Wall Street lawyer who volunteered and met with a client who had a 10-year-old summons from San Francisco that kept him for getting a job and finding a place to live in New York. That lawyer made a simple phone call and resolved the issue for him.
"That’s the power of an attorney," Zainey said. "He can get a job because a lawyer made a phone call."
Volunteering for the project might not change the world, Zainey said, but it can make a huge difference in someone’s life. "Each of us in this room can change people’s world," he said.