Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. - Peter 4:10

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 by Maureen Fries

“I need a house. I need a place to stay,” explained Ed Cobb, just one of several Camillus House clients waiting for an appointment with an attorney on this sunny Saturday morning in Miami.

Cobb currently shares a one room studio apartment with three other men. “It’s not very convenient, but it’s dry, that’s the main thing. And it’s got air conditioning.  It’s housing. It’s a nice place.” Cobb explained that “the city is so over run with homeless people they have no place to put them. Camillus is doing this all on their own.”

“This” is the Camillus House Pro Bono Legal Aid Clinic, a unique program run in partnership with Lawyers to the Rescue to provide free legal advice and assistance to Camillus clients. It is held on the third Saturday of every month at the Camillus House Campus in Miami. And for two hours each month, these attorneys give of their time and talent to those who otherwise would not have access to legal counseling.  

“This is a humanitarian initiative that was created by lawyers to help those who have the greatest need for legal assistance and the least access to it,” said Spencer Aronfeld, Founder of Lawyers of to Rescue.  “These people couldn’t get legal aid because they don’t have transportation, they don’t have cell phones and legal aid is open Monday to Friday and they only take certain cases.”

According to Lourdes Anton, Community Outreach Specialist for Camillus House, about 1,800 clients have been helped at the monthly legal clinic at Camillus House since its inception in 2010.  Residents of Camillus are assigned case workers to help them navigate bureaucratic waters, and as Lourdes explained, they sometimes get stumped at a certain point. “We give the Lawyers to the Rescue the case manager’s name and the attorney contacts him/her with the next steps they need to take.”

 “Sometimes it’s a small thing, like finding out immigration status and they can get help right on the spot,” adds Carolyn De Moya, Interim Director at Lawyers to the Rescue. “But a lot of times, immigration cases are a lot more complex and even involved some criminal issues.”

For Cobb, the issue is bureaucratic red tape. He was one of the Urban Strike Force housing program lottery winners in 2015 in what was called, 100 Homes for 100 Homeless. “The Urban Strike Force wanted his original papers of who disabled him and why,” Lourdes clarified, pointing out that “they wanted it in writing. Well, his doctor is dead, the clinic is gone, torn down. Back then, they didn’t have internet records.”

In 1995, Cobb was hit by a car, an accident that resulted in fracturing over 60% of his bones and leaving him with brain damage.  His recovery and rehabilitation kept Ed in the hospital for a year and ended up taking everything from him-his home, his possessions…and his career as Orthopaedic surgeon.  “I come out of the hospital and I’m disabled. All of a sudden, nothing. Everything is gone. All my money went to pay for the hospital bill. It cost me over a million dollars for the hospital bill. I had to sell everything I owned. I liquidated my whole life.”

Scott Kotler has his own law practice and is one of the handful of attorneys who give up their Saturday morning once a month to help with those more difficult cases. “I look forward to coming here.  It’s two hours a month. Maybe I put in 10, 15 or 20 hours at the most over the course of the month working on a case or two. It’s wonderful. It helps everybody. For me, it’s fulfilling and it’s my way of giving back.”

“You come here with the mindset to help,” said Anthony Genova, a family law attorney who recently joined the core of lawyers at the clinic. “Whether you’re handling a case for someone here at Camillus or handling a case for someone who’s paying you $200,000, the responsibility is the same. The level of care, the standard of care is not less because someone is homeless.”

According to Kotler, on a typical Saturday morning at the clinic the attorneys see anywhere between 15 and 25 people, many who only need someone to listen to their plight. “Sometimes it’s just giving advice and that’s all they need,” Kotler points out. “Just listening to them and pointing them in the right direction. Other times, it’s actually taking on a case, working on it, seeing them the next month and bringing them up to date on what’s been done, trying to resolve the problem.”

There isn’t always a perfect match of attorney and client, Kotler acknowledged. But in those instances, attorneys present at the clinic will take the case back to the proper attorney to follow up.

“We are very, very grateful that Camillus House has given us the opportunity to serve their people,” Aronfeld said. “When you get a thanks from one of the Camillus House clients, it goes right to your heart.”

“This is necessary,” Kotler said of the legal clinic. “It’s necessary for us as attorneys and law students and members of the community to do this. Because if we don’t, nobody is.”

 “They saved my life,” Cobb says of Camillus House. “I got away from the street. It just changed my whole life.”

Cobb prays that this visit with an attorney helps him untangle the red tape and leads to finding a permanent home. Anton says they are not giving up. “We are going to keep pushing.”

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