Homeless Action Center’s Dedicated Attorneys Are Passionate About Public Benefits Advocacy
In these troubling times of ever-increasing homelessness in the Bay Area, and fearful uncertainty about the federal safety net, there is a group of dedicated attorneys serving the neediest of Alameda County to obtain the benefits that they are entitled to. These attorneys work for the Homeless Action Center (HAC), an under-the radar but very significant community fixture for the last 26 years. Much of their work is focused on obtaining federal SSI benefits for their clients, an often long and cumbersome legal process.
The work that these attorneys do is often challenging. Many of them are young attorneys who are truly passionate about the public benefits advocacy they provide to the neediest members of the community. Some of them are making financial sacrifices to work at HAC. They do it because they recognize that public benefits advocacy is a critical tool to reduce and end homelessness. A number of HAC attorneys have left jobs at law firms or other agencies for the opportunity to serve those most in need.
Meghan Corman Pluimer is a managing attorney at HAC. She assigns client cases as well as maintaining her own case load. Megan came to HAC from a plaintiffs law firm. “I knew I wanted to leave because I had gone to law school specifically to practice public interest law, but that field is very competitive in the Bay Area, says Meghan. “The attorney jobs at HAC are sought after.” Meghan had worked on a child advocacy case in law school and was concerned about burnout at HAC because of that experience. But she quickly learned that her colleagues are all extremely supportive and encouraging of each other.
In addition, HAC has a number of self care policies in place for its employees. “It’s the polar opposite of working in a law firm,” says Meghan. HAC attorneys are not allowed to work overtime to prevent the stresses of their job from leading to burnout. HAC also has very generous maternity, family and sabbatical leave policies. “All of the HAC attorneys are very supportive of each other but each attorney is autonomous,” Meghan explains. “It’s a very unique workplace.”
Attorney Alan Dunnigan left HAC after three and a half years to work at the Social Security Administration hearing office as an attorney advisor in Stockton, where he advised administrative judges on disability cases and drafted their decisions. Though he believes he made a positive contribution, he felt pressure to obtain quantitative rather than qualitative results. He learned first-hand that the agency is coping with an extraordinary need for resources and support, so as a result, demands to resolve a large volume of cases within a pre-set timeframe were often unrealistic. “There are so many cases of people who should be receiving benefits,” he says. “Too often there is not enough attention paid to the clients’ personal circumstances that lead them to seek SSI in the first place.”
Alan returned to HAC in January 2017 with deep knowledge of the SSI hearing process gained from his experience working at SSA. “It was a valuable experience, but I missed working with individual clients. Working at HAC allows me to help my clients obtain the benefits that they need.”
About Homeless Action Center
The Homeless Action Center (HAC) is a legal services program that employs nearly 60 fulltime attorneys and advocates at its offices in Berkeley and Oakland. It currently provides individual representation to approximately 2,300 clients annually in Alameda County. In January, HAC opened a second office in Oakland and is planning to hire additional attorneys.
HAC is the only legal services program in the Bay Area that specializes in public benefits advocacy for those who are homeless. It provides no-cost, barrier-free, culturally competent legal representation. No homeless person is refused service because of the complexities of his or her legal case and the difficulties they present as clients. Many clients have drug or alcoholism problems. Many suffer from severe psychosis, paranoia, and personality disorders. The majority meet the legal definition for chronic homelessness.
For new clients, HAC moves quickly to apply for General Assistance, CalFresh (food stamps) and Medi-Cal. If a client cannot work due to severe mental illness or physical disability, a HAC attorney applies for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). While some SSI claims are resolved within two or three months, it is not uncommon for cases to continue for a year or even longer. The modest but reliable monthly payments provided by SSI will pay the client’s rent in supportive housing and reduce the costs to local taxpayers for law enforcement and emergency services.
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Organizations mentioned/involved: Homeless Action Center (HAC)