Portland clinic to provide free legal aid to homeless

PORTLAND – People who are homeless will soon not have to also be lawyer-less.

Volunteer attorneys, in partnership with Preble Street, are launching a free legal clinic for homeless individuals. The Maine Homeless Legal Project, announced at a press conference Jan. 9, is expected to be serving clients by April.

Lawyers will meet with the clients at Preble Street for one hour each week, and may take on extended cases if needed. The clinic anticipates handling a wide variety of legal matters that are caused or complicated by homelessness, including tenant rights, child support and issues involving legal identification or drivers’ licenses.

"People who are homeless often face a number of legal problems that need to be addressed or resolved before they can establish stable housing. And navigating the legal system is a daunting challenge that will be relieved by (the clinic)," said Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann.

The MHLP is also sponsored by the American Bar Association, the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project and Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

The clinic is modeled after a similar program, Project HELP, founded 10 years ago in New Orleans by U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey. Since then, 20 other homeless legal clinics have opened across the country.

Zainey was on hand at last week’s press conference to encourage local lawyers to participate.

"I wish there were not a homelessness problem, but there is, and I saw it first-hand," he said. "This is just the right thing to do."

A modest amount of donated legal time can go a long way, Zainey told the audience, which included dozens of lawyers. Sometimes an obstacle for a homeless client can be resolved just because a lawyer makes a phone call, he said.

"Ninety to 95 percent of (homeless clients) don’t even really have a legal problem," he said, "but they don’t know that."

The clinic anticipated signing up 12 law firms to provide volunteers, according to one of its founders, David Soley, a member of the Bernstein Shur firm. But already 17 firms have agreed to participate.

Mayor Michael Brennan said that despite the legal work of organizations such as Pine Tree, there is an unmet need for representation among people experiencing homelessness. And with the second-highest per capita concentration of lawyers in the country, he said, Cumberland County is a vast resource that can be tapped in response.

"That’s one of the reasons this program is so exciting," Brennan said.