Friday February 23, 2007

What Laws Help or Hurt Homeless People?

Some law students are taking a mid-semester break to examine how laws affect homeless people like Vicky Keeney. Keeney described herself as a normal, suburban, American wife and mom who ran a skydiving school before she became homeless.

Vicky Keeney describes herself as a normal, suburban, American wife and mom who ran a skydiving school before she became homeless. She says she's looking for help, not so much in changes to the law, but for changes in attitudes about homelessness.

Some University of Dayton School of Law students are taking a mid-semester break to examine how laws hinder or could help people like Keeney during a one-week course on homelessness. They will visit Dayton homeless shelters Tuesday and Wednesday and present their findings in class Thursday and Friday.

"I think it's an issue that can have a solution. It's not hopeless like some people think," said Robert Ernst, a second-year law student. "We're going to talk to the homeless, so we can hear their problems and possible solutions first-hand. It's a good real-world opportunity that beats sitting in a classroom."

Students started the week listening to community leaders discuss how the law factors into homelessness.

"Lawyers have an insight into the law. There is an obligation to exercise those skills as a citizen," Brother Raymond Fitz, S.M., past UD president and a member of the area-wide Homeless Solutions Taskforce, said Monday afternoon at the UD School of Law. "If you see a moral issue and have the skills to address it, then you should address it."

Third-year student Elise Brown is taking the course to gain a better understanding of the system and find a way to possibly improve life for the homeless.

When pressed, Keeney had some ideas for the future. She suggested that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission add homelessness to the list of protected groups.

"We know better than to put ‘homeless' on a job application," she said. Keeney went on to say, "Do away with petty laws and (focus) on violent crimes. (The homeless are) spotlighted for littering, jaywalking or open-container. You can go to jail as simply as we do (for those things), but you don't have a spotlight on you."

Other than that, Keeney is asking just for basic human rights and a change in the way the legal system treats homeless people.

"A public defender says, ‘How fast can I get you out the door?' They don't want to fight for you. Legal aid, I understand, is so overwhelmed," Keeney said. "Look at the difference in legal representation between people who have money and people who are poor. We're told to take a plea agreement or we get more jail time."

Rich Saphire, the UD law professor teaching the intra-session class, said a variety of laws nationwide effectively criminalize homelessness or prevent movement of homeless people. Dayton's anti-panhandling law is an example, according to Saphire, current board president of The Other Place, Dayton's only daytime homeless shelter. Other examples include cities removing park and bus benches from downtowns.

He added that most homeless people have below-average levels of education, no access to lawyers and often think "nobody like them" can be successful in being empowered and fighting the system.

The American Bar Association's committee on pro bono and public service says every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year to persons of limited means. Keeney said she hasn't met such a lawyer.

"Few law students have an understanding of the homelessness problem," Saphire said. "The system does provide resources for those of us engaged in managing the symptoms of or getting rid of homelessness. Lawyers can and should play a major role in accomplishing these objectives. Lawyers should be exposed, on a personal and professional basis, to homelessness. There is no better occasion for this to happen than in the context of their professional education in law school."

Exposing students to the problems of homeless people and the less fortunate is the goal of UD and other universities nationwide. UD encourages its incoming law students to sign a pro bono pledge that states they will complete 50 hours of pro bono or community service before they graduate.

Georgetown, Duke and George Washington law schools encourage their students to sign similar pledges. Yale, the University of Chicago, Syracuse and Georgetown are among the law schools giving students a glimpse of homeless law.

For interviews, contact Shawn Robinson at 937-229-3391.