Last week in Tallahassee, the Jacksonville Bar Association was awarded the prestigious Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Service Award for 2002 for its work and efforts in assisting the homeless through the legal intake clinic at the I.M. Sulzbacher Center. Since its inaugural debut in February 2001, more than 50 attorneys from the JBA have extended their already busy day to interview over 200 guests of the Center who have questions and legal issues concerning child support, adoption, personal injury, workers’ compensation, criminal law, and labor law. Thus far, attorneys have donated almost 300 hours to this program interviewing guests, administrating the project and handling the cases pro bono.
The legal clinic, which is coordinated by Alan Pickert of Brown, Terrell, Hogan and Sarah Fowler of Legal Aid, is held on the third Tuesday of each month from 6:45 to 8:30 p.m. at the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the benefit of the guests at the Center. Each session includes a minimum of four attorneys: two attorneys who specialize in general litigation, a family law attorney, and a public defender. Both Pickert and Fowler participate each month to provide continuity, while the other volunteer attorneys who participate rotate monthly. In addition, monthly presentations are also conducted at the Center in conjunction with the legal clinic covering various substantive topics including employment, divorce, housing, and criminal concerns.
The I.M. Sulzbacher Center averages 278 homeless guests on a daily basis. As a result, a number of these guests have legal problems which require an attorney’s attention. Those individuals who sign up to meet with an attorney for the legal intake are then interviewed by the attorney and their case is either accepted by the attorney or referred to Legal Aid staff or pro bono attorneys for further follow up. However, counsel’s advice during the intake session often resolves many of the guests’ issues or problems.
The Sulzbacher Center views the clinic as a tremendous success. As Hodges, a life skills educator for the Center, stated: “We are inundated with legal questions throughout the course of any given day by our guests. The guests want real answers, and quite frankly we do not have the answers. The guests are always excited and look forward to being able to meet with Alan, Sarah, or the other volunteer attorneys to address their needs. It is also good for the guests’ self esteem to know that there are individuals out in the world who care about them.”
One such example of the impact of the program was illustrated at the Center’s annual fund raiser, “Transformations.” During the fund raiser, the Center honors its partnership with organizations and recognizes the successful transformations of its guests. One such successful transformation concerned a guest who was wrongfully denied unemployment compensation benefits that she desperately needed to support her family until she found future employment. By utilizing the program that was enacted by the JBA’s partnership with Legal Aid, the grateful guest was justly awarded the benefits that had been wrongly denied her, thereby moving her one step closer to achieving her goal of self reliance for herself and her children.
Every month brings an entirely new flow of guests requiring legal assistance. Everyone involved in the project works diligently to refer guests to the clinic with the hope of helping them remove yet one more barrier toward their independence. As one individual stated, legal assistance was the “missing piece of the puzzle” for the Center. Now the picture is complete thanks to the Jacksonville Bar Association.
When asked about the attorneys who volunteer their time, Pickert had this to say: “This program absolutely could not be successful without the cooperation of the numerous attorneys who, despite already having a full case load, are willing to create additional time to benefit the Jacksonville community. For example, Bill White, chief assistant of the Public Defender’s Office, has been instrumental in having a public defender participate each month at the clinic.” However, Pickert went on to say that there is room to improve. “There are still many attorneys in our community who practice family law and general litigation who if volunteered to participate even just once a year would make the clinic even more successful.”
Therefore, if you would be willing to volunteer for one or two hours at the legal intake clinic at the Sulzbacher Center, please contact Pickert at Brown, Terrell, Hogan, 233 E. Bay St., 8th Floor, Jacksonville, FL 32202, 396-9898, or at [email protected]. The time commitment is minimal, but the results are monumental.