Can the Internet be a Source of Legal Empowerment for the Homeless?
By: Alex Long
Abstract

    When the homeless set about the daunting task of rebuilding their lives, they often find that they are in dire need of some legal assistance in some form or fashion.  Most of them did not become destitute without leaving behind huge trails of legal difficulties that continued to mount over the years.  What's worse is that they are in a position least likely to be able to obtain legal aid.  However, across the country some free legal aid is provide to the homeless but it is often scarce and difficult for them to find.  One way to counter this problem is for the homeless to use the recourses available to them on the world wide web via their local library or clinic.  However, they must beware of fraud on the internet and be able to travel if necessary to obtain the help that they need under the current system. 
 

Introduction

    The homeless or marginalized people have long been the class of humans most trampled on by society.  Looking through history, the most arrogant in any echelon seek to find other groups to look down upon.  The lowest of these classes has often been those individuals on the fringes of society who dwell in the streets and slums.  They find themselves in the toughest circumstances where the words “upward mobility” and “equality” are often only myths.  Some of these individuals suffer from mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from earning a traditional living.  Some are victims of their own substance abuse.  Others are those who were once living mainstream societal lifestyles and now find themselves tossed into the abyss by widespread economic downturns or personal financial strife.  In any case, these are a group of people who need a hand up. 

    Despite the best efforts of the homeless and the many volunteers helping them to better their position, the homeless often find themselves at dead ends facing huge walls covered with government red tape.  Their only realm of refuge in these instances are with lawyers and legal advisors who often charge exorbitant amounts for their services.  As a result, legal services are usually not available to the homeless.  Sure, there are occasional cases where a lawyer doing Pro Bono work (volunteer work for the public good) will take up the case of someone who is homeless, but these circumstances are indeed very rare. 

Why Homeless Need Pro Bono.

    The reason that legal Pro Bono work for the homeless is so hard to find is really a two fold issue.  First of all, there are not very many lawyers who do Pro Bono work for the homeless.  While Pro Bono work is a very nice gesture, it is often not a reality because lawyers do not get any money for it.  After all, lawyers have to eat too!  In addition, when Pro Bono work is undertaken by a lawyer wishing to return something to society, it is often done in an area of individual interest such as legal defense of the environment.  Nevertheless, some Pro Bono work for the homeless is regularly undertaken throughout urban sectors of the country, yet many homeless people have not taken advantage of it.  One reason for this lack of action is that there exists a disconnect between the homeless and the rest of society.  Indeed there is also a large disconnect among the homeless themselves such that any hint of organization in the legal field is virtually non existent.  As author Bill Mesler puts it, “The needs of homeless people are generally so urgent that they do not parallel the structure of a legal strategy, which for the most part is focused on long-term change” (par. 30).

    For mainstream America, finding legal advice is not very difficult.  If someone who is in need of legal advice does not already have a lawyer and needs one, he or she only needs to ask a friend for references or turn to the yellow pages.  The person will call around and find a good lawyer for whose services he or she can afford.  A homeless person, however, usually does not have the realms of references available to the rest of society and, furthermore, can not afford such services.  In addition, the homeless are often in need of legal services even more so than the average person.  This is to say that by virtue of living on the streets one is more likely to be tossed around and discriminated against.  “They look for help recovering what they have lost -  jobs in which they may have been discriminated against, apartments from which they have been evicted, or disability benefits which have been terminated” (Ebbert B03).  Also, many local governments have been set up in a way as to discourage the homeless from existing.  This situation is a mortal paradox because the citizens do not want to see homeless people and the governments do not want to deal constructively with the homeless.  The result is an exasperated situation.  In such cases, it is apparent that the homeless need representation. 

    A classic example of the ways in which a homeless person can be legally empowered is the case of Alonzo Swift (Ebbert B03).  Alonzo Swift was destitute after losing his girlfriend, apartment, and job.  He was also addicted to cocaine and was constantly on the run from law enforcement.  Somewhere along the way he ran into some very helpful people at a rehabilitation center who helped him clean up is bad habits, get off drugs, and get a fresh start, or so he thought.  As soon as he cleaned up, he realized that there was much more to regaining control of his life than quitting drugs and finding a job.  He realized that putting his life back together was going to be a tough task; he was going to need a lawyer. 

    Through good luck, Swift was able to find a lawyer doing Pro Bono work at a legal clinic run by a conjunction of eight law firms.  After studying his case, one lawyer decided to take up his case.  Swift, wanting to get his past behind him, turned himself in for his former crimes.  He presented his case to a judge who let him off with only an obligation to pay court cost when he had the means.  The lawyer also helped him to get his driver's license.  His legal counseling propelled him not only to clean himself up but to clean up his past so that he could have a truly fresh start at a new life. 

Online Advice

    One possibility for a renewed legal empowerment for the homeless that has only recently become available to the general public and is slowly making its way to the homeless at large is legal advice and contacts through the Internet.  Currently there are a plethora of internet sites and resources that are devoted to helping the homeless cope and indeed attack their legal dilemmas head on.  Some sites provide answers to frequently asked legal questions with just the click of a mouse so that those in need can quickly become acquainted with the law.  One such site is http://freeadvice.com which offers a good survey of topics.  Each topic familiarizes the reader with the law surrounding the particular issue (free).  Consulting such sites can often help people to decide what their next course of action should be and whether or not they need to seek an attorney before they become too involved.  In addition, many of these sites provide free legal forms in printable formats that will help the homeless to communicate with legal lingo. 

    Common advice like the type described above can be a good starting point but for the homeless more in-depth legal action is often needed.  Again, the Internet can provide a venue for such actions.  There are many web sites on the Internet that provide a question and answer format.  These sites either have online forms with spaces to ask questions or they have email addresses which are intended for use by the homeless.  Once submitted, the questions will be answered and returned by email to the questioner.  Question and answer venues are often taken for granted by the general public but they can be quite a valuable service for the homeless.  Many times the homeless can solve their legal problems by simply asking a few questions from someone who is trained in the law.  One reason the advice is so valuable is that surveys show that the homeless are often uneducated and quite ignorant of the law.  A study conducted by the Los Angeles Mission showed that out of 658 homeless persons studied, 12 percent had a K-6 education, 16 percent had a 7-9 grade education, 44 percent had a high school education, 21 percent had some college, and 5 percent were graduates of college (Reid).  It should be noted that the pollster said that these numbers represented some of the most educated homeless people in the country. 

    If after researching their issues and positions on the previously mentioned sites the homeless find that they need legal representation, there are several sites online that provide legal advocacy.  One problem that arises with these sites however is that they are many times regionally located.  That is, one site may be for residents of New York City while another may be for residents of Los Angeles.  This is an obvious dilemma since most homeless people do not have very productive means of traveling from city to city to meet an appointment.  These web sites point to directions or times in which the homeless may apply for free legal aid conducted in a Pro Bono format.  In the case of the Bar Association of San Francisco, residents of the greater city area are invited to attend Pro Bono legal clinics “on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of every month” (Free Legal).  The site offers addresses and toll free phone numbers for the homeless to use.  It also states that emergency cases can be handled during any week on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  For those who live in these cities and are linked such that they are aware of the services, there is some help available. 

    The San Francisco site is a representative of the best sites on the Internet that provide legal advocacy for the homeless.  Several such sites exist in many of America's largest cities.  These quality sites are legitimate and are sponsored either by the local Bar Association or by well known homeless advocacy groups.  The people who run the Pro Bono sites have many lawyers on record who are committed to helping the homeless.  In some case, city governments are requiring a certain miniscule amount of Pro Bono service work for the homeless to be conduct per law firm in a given year.  These numbers reflect the size and income of law firms.  Such new ideas in encouraging Pro Bono activities promise to stimulate online legal growth for the homeless cause. 

Web Site Credibility

    However, a major issue with the online forums for legal advice is credibility.  How do the homeless know that the advice that they are getting is legitimate?  Problems with the quality of the advice are far ranging.  Some of the sites are really not fraudulent but simply commercial in orientation whose intention is to make money.  They lure customers in with the false pretense of free advice.  One way to check to see if a site falls into this category is to see who the ultimate sponsors of the site are.  If the site is truly maintained by a local bar association or advocacy group, then it is most likely legitimate.  However if it the site has a flashy front page entrance that promises free advice and is maintained by a private law firm, then it may be less than noble in its intentions. 

    As difficult as it may be to believe, there are also a small minority of sites on the net offering legal services or advice that have no legal background.  Some of the authors of these sites truly want to help the homeless in their legal struggles but they do not have the credentials to be doing so.  One particularly heartfelt Internet site entitled Resources for the Homeless:  Columbia, SC offers its readers legal advice yet uncharacteristically qualifies the information by saying, “What follows below is not meant as legal advice. I am not a lawyer” (Flessas).  As a result of misinformation that is not qualified as above, the homeless may get incorrect or even illegal advice. 

Homeless Access

    One major obstacle to the homeless getting the legal help that they need via the Internet is the issue of access to the internet.  In other words, even if the help is online, are the homeless going to be able to access it?  While there are documented cases of homeless people owning their on computing system and working at an online job while living in a tent , most homeless people, indeed the vast majority of them, do not have the means to purchase their own computer or to pay for a monthly access fee (Harrison 37).  As a result, their only means of accessing the Internet are through public computer systems in libraries and the rare ones available to them in public shelters.  Urban areas throughout the country generally have some type of system where the homeless can enter the Internet yet the venues are sometimes inconsistent in the quality of service  provided.  Some facilities have pretty much up to date systems, as much as can be expected from a public library, while others are behind by many years in the technology offered to the public.  Other road blocks include discrimination at the point of entry to the Internet.  These are instances where librarians or information technology specialists attempt to block or place barriers so that destitute people can not access the computing systems. 

    While genuine at heart, some rules unintentionally discriminate.  For instance, some libraries require a library card to access the network systems.  Card registration is only complete once the home address portion of the application has been filled out.  Other instances are when libraries charge as much as $.25 a page for print outs which is a lot of money for the homeless.  Luckily in most parts of the country libraries and their staff encourage all people to use their systems and the instances described above are exceptions.  In fact, many librarians find it difficult to tell whether “some users are actually homeless or just scruffy” (Rogers 27).  The Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey noted that “the library hasn't ‘done a profile of who our users are, so I am sure that there are people from all walks of life including the homeless who are using it” (Rogers 27).  One homeless San Francisco Internet user estimated that over thirty percent of the all of the library Internet users in the many cities which he had traveled to were homeless (Rogers 27).  In addition, an article by Peter Garrison describes the homeless Internet users as a sort of “Net Geeks [that] are not the junkies and the alcoholics among the homeless.  They are… ordinary kinds of people temporarily… at the bottom of Fortune's wheel” (20).

Recomendations

    When faced with such numbers, even if they do only represent a small portion of the general homeless population, there has to be a great optimism that more and more  homeless people are getting online each day.  Ideally this usership translates into increased freedoms and a more level playing field because on the Internet, everyone is truly equal.  In the ever evolving techno mediated society that has become the Internet, there is indeed a place for legal empowerment of the homeless.  However, as noted, there are some obstacles which must be overcome and which are being challenged everyday.  Once the premise is accepted that the homeless are eventually going to have unabridged access to the internet, the issues of legal aid and services and the accompanying legal improprieties must be dealt with.  The best way of doing so is to create a national directory sponsored by the American Bar Association.  The Bar already has such a network for customers with cash in hand and, considering the immense amount of money that the Bar collects, construction of such a network for advertising Pro Bono work would account for only a trifle of their total Pro Bono budget.  Imagine a web site that had links to every respected free legal advice page on the net.  A page controlled by the Bar could be trusted for its integrity and its quality.  Lawyers from around the country could advertise their Pro Bono openings so that the neediest could get help. 

    Every day the Internet is a source for the legal empowerment of the homeless.  Homeless people are getting on the net, figuring it out, and getting help.  In some cases they are fighting the establishment and breaking down barriers to seek their freedoms but the bottom line is that some are making it.  However, the number who are resourceful enough to break through is incredibly insignificant compared to the potential.  If, in the coming years, more homeless people are going to be legally empowered by the internet, they are going to need clear access to the net and reliably safe, online sources. 
 


Bibliography


“Free Legal Help for Homeless People.”  Bar Association of San Francisco.  22 April 2000. 
     http://www.sfbar.org/vls/help.html.

Ebbert, Stephanie.  “Program gives homeless a legal leg-up.” The Boston Globe.  31 August 1998:  BO3.

Find Forms.  20 April 2000.  http://www.findforms.com/.

Flessas, Michael.  Resources for the Homeless:  Columbia, SC.  21 April 2000. 
     http://www.mindspring.com/~scpoint/scpronet/legal.html.

Free Advice. Com.  Attorney Pages.  22 April 2000. http://freeadvice.com/

Garrison, Peter.  “Homeless In Seattle.”   Net Guide.  March 1995. v2 n2 p20. 

Hambrick, Ralph and Gary T. Johnson.  “The Future of Homelessness.”  Society.  Transaction Publishers. 
     1998.

Harrison, Laird.  “Home is where the laptop is.”  People Weekly.  11 March, 1996:  v45 n10. 

Mesler, Bill.  “The Homeless Learn to Hit Back.”  The Third Force.  May / June 1995.  Pages 18-25.  par. 30.

Reid, Russ.  “Education of homeless.”  Los Angeles Mission. EBSCO:  Polling the Nations.  Pasadena, CA. 
     2000.

Rogers, Michael.  “The Homeless Take to the Net Using Library Connections.” Library Journal.  Cahners 
     Publishing Company.  15 April 1999. v124 p27.