By Lisa Borden, Baker Donelson Pro Bono Shareholder & ‘Project Homeless Connect’ Volunteer Attorney Coordinator
From medical testing and dental extractions to legal services and even haircuts, Project Homeless Connect (PHC) is an annual event in Birmingham that brings together a variety of services on one day for those experiencing homelessness. This year PHC will be held on Saturday, April 11 at Boutwell Auditorium.
There are hundreds of people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Birmingham, including women, families with children, homeless youth, ex-offenders and those who are suffering from mental illness and other disabilities. Ignoring them does not make them go away. We have a responsibility to provide resources to help people help themselves. Continually arresting them for minor offenses and shuttling them between emergency shelters ultimately costs us much more in tax dollars than it does to offer more lasting help.
Many agencies and organizations in Birmingham share this view and come together to provide services to help. Government agencies such as the Social Security Administration will be present to assist people with benefits, and many affordable housing organizations will be in attendance as well. The Department of Public Safety typically has the most popular station where they make State ID cards without charge.
There are also many opportunities for attorneys to volunteer to consult with participants about different legal issues. Attorneys can provide referrals for continuing representation when needed, and most importantly, volunteer attorneys assist people in clearing up old fines and warrants for traffic citations and petty misdemeanor cases – many of which arise from the criminalization of homelessness. Individuals who have warrants are unable to obtain ID cards, apply for jobs, find and secure housing, and do many other vital things. Those with unpaid fines, even without warrants, likely do not have a valid driver’s license and aren’t able to have it reinstated until those cases are closed. Judges from several courts, including the cities of Birmingham and Bessemer and both the Birmingham and Bessemer divisions of Jefferson County, will be present to help dispose of these cases.
Attorneys are needed to volunteer in two-hour shifts to help consult with clients and assist them in presenting their cases to the judges. Others who are not attorneys can volunteer to act as guides or “smiling faces” to engage participants and make them feel welcome and comfortable. A guide will be assigned to each client and help them locate and access the various services he or she needs.
Lisa Borden is a Pro Bono Shareholder for Baker Donelson law firm in Birmingham, Ala. She organizes the volunteer attorneys, works with law students who do intake interviews, and organizes the various courts that attend Project Homeless Connect.