Skip to main content

Homeless Legal Assistance Project

April 09, 2006

An employed man earning $1400 per pay check, an amount with which he should be able to support himself comfortably, is found living at a homeless shelter, not because he squanders his funds on a drug habit or some other consuming addiction. Instead, the majority of his funds go to providing child support for his three children.

The problem, however, is that his children are ages 24, 20, and 17, the oldest is married, and the 24 year-old and the 20 year-old are completely self-supporting. While this man has thought he was doing the right thing by continuing the support, the money, for an unknown number of years, has been funneled to the mother while the children transitioned into adulthood and began supporting themselves.

Without the Homeless Legal Assistance Project, this man would not have received the legal help necessary to identify this issue and pull him out of the predicament of supporting two adult children. Thanks to the law students and attorneys involved, the man was able to establish financial stability, continue to support his 17 year-old daughter until she turned 18, get his own apartment, and essentially reclaim his independence.

His is just one of the many successful stories that result from the work of the Homeless Legal Assistance Project, a volunteer project operated by students at ASU’s College of Law that has been providing assistance to homeless clients since 1989. Cathy O’Grady, faculty advisor of the project, expresses of the project’s benefit to its clients, “We’re here to help them resolve their legal worries and to take that burden off their shoulders.”

O’Grady, who first became involved in the project as an attorney before joining ASU’s law faculty, also states, “What I love about this project is that it was started by our law students.” She describes the project’s founders as three “very aware and conscientious” students who were driven by a desire to put the skills they were learning in the classroom to good use in providing important services to members of the community who would not otherwise have access to legal services.

Students who volunteer for the project visit six different homeless shelters that provide services to the diverse range of homeless individuals in the Phoenix metropolitan area, including specific populations such as runaway teenagers and veterans. Groups of four to five law students, many of whom are first-year students trying out their new skills, meet one to two practicing attorneys at the shelters on a regular basis to assess the client’s needs together.

Once at the shelters, students interview the clients, assess their legal needs, and bring the information they have learned to one of the attorneys on hand. The student and attorney then consult together about the client’s situation and develop a plan for helping the client resolve the issue. Often the volunteer team will be able to help the client on the spot, while some situations require additional research and interviews. More complex cases are sometimes transferred to one of the College of Law’s four legal clinics.

Alane Fried, the current student director of the program, says that one of the best aspects of the program for students is that “it is so rewarding to take all the knowledge you learn in class and apply it,” especially for students starting out in law school to get their first taste of pro bono work. Other students involved in the program state that, in addition to providing the opportunity to help out people in the community, the project enables students to work with practicing attorneys as well as to learn about the available social resources in the Phoenix area.

The Homeless Legal Assistance Project, or HLAP as it is called by its volunteers, provides assistance to over 1200 clients per year. ASU’s College of Law has become a leader among law schools across the country in conducting a project of this sort, and other institutions have contacted the college to learn how to replicate it in their communities. An advisory board consisting of judges and attorneys as well as faculty and students from the College of Law provides assistance to the otherwise entirely student-run project. And as an additional service, the program operates an annual necessities drive to provide needed items to the shelters’ residents.