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New help for veterans with legal problems

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 18, 2013

Former U.S. Air Force Maintenance Specialist, Kimberly Adams, knows firsthand what is involved in returning to civilian life. In August 1985, the Dayton native joined the military to help get her life on a positive career track.

Years later, the graduate of Michigan’s Wayne State University Law School is preparing to take the Ohio State Bar exam in February. She’s also on a mission to give back to veterans who have not been as lucky as she has, working on the “Boots on the Ground” Veterans Justice Project at Community Legal Aid Services, Inc., a regional nonprofit law firm serving eight counties in central northeast Ohio.

The first of its kind in central northeast Ohio, the “Boots on the Ground” project brings together veterans, attorneys, service providers and community organizations in an effort to identify and fulfill the needs of veterans and their families.

As an Equal Justice Works Legal Fellow, Adams designed the program to positively impact veterans in need across the region. “There are a lot of reintegration issues when you return from the military,” said Adams.

“A lot of times people in the military shy away from asking for help believing they should be able to solve their problems on their own. There are also a lot of trust issues. In some cases, people fail to identify themselves as a veteran if they did not serve in a war.

“I did not serve in a war, yet I am a veteran,” said Adams. “The military started me on the process that I needed to have a productive life and I want to do the same for other veterans who need assistance to build and maintain stable lives.”

Community Legal Aid Services, Inc. handles the needs of low-income and senior residents in Summit, Portage, Mahoning, Stark, Medina, Trumbull, Columbiana, and Wayne counties.

It is the host group for the “Boots on the Ground” Veterans Justice Project, which among other things, will provide regular legal clinics--the first of which was held at the Akron Community Resource and Referral Center on E. Voris Street on Friday November 8. Veterans who come in will be given advice on civil matters ranging from foreclosures and landlord/tenant problems to family law and benefits issues.

Attorney Kenneth Mirkin, an AmeriCorps Equal Justice Fellow sponsored by the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation and hosted by Community Legal Aid, is among those who will provide legal assistance to the low-income and homeless veterans at the clinics.

A graduate of Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Youngstown native spent the past two years as a staff attorney for Community Legal Aid Services in Akron working on foreclosure cases.

He is among 36 Equal Justice Works Legal Fellows that are part of the newly created AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Corps. Seven of the AmeriCorps legal fellows are focusing on Ohio because of its large number of veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as of April 2013 there were over to 22.3 million veterans nationwide--877,894 of them were living in Ohio as of May 2013.

“My main role is to provide legal help to those who have been honorably discharged,” said Mirkin. “I will work at clinics, do intake and help direct people to services or in some cases perhaps be able to answer their questions on the spot.”

“Community Legal Aid has always served veterans with civil legal needs, but we never had funding for serving veterans in particular,” said Ashley Heeney, Community Legal Aid Services director of development and communications. “We recently partnered with Family & Community Services under a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program grant to serve veterans in Summit, Portage and Trumbull counties.”

Heeney said Community Legal Aid also serves veterans in other counties but not under this grant.

“Veterans Affairs does an annual survey each year to determine which needs are not being met for homeless veterans throughout the country,” said Matthew Slater, director of veterans services at Family & Community Services. “Each year legal services, especially child support issues, are among the top three unmet needs of homeless vets.”

He said the grant has provided $100,000 to Community Legal Aid to help fill the void.

“Resolving legal issues helps eliminate barriers to regaining employment and obtaining and retaining housing. The grant is vital to help stabilize veteran households."

In addition to handling the legal needs of veterans, Mirkin will field calls from the Community Legal Aid HelpLine (1-800-998-9454) to screen people for eligibility.

Both he and Adams began their two-year fellowships in September. The two are making the rounds at community centers and several Veterans courts, including those in Stark County and Youngstown.

“The Veterans courts are treatment courts designed to help veterans with criminal issues,” said Adams. “Although our project does not address criminal issues, we do address many of the underlying causes of legal problems veterans have like housing and consumer debt.

“We do more than handle legal issues. We also connect veterans with benefits or support organizations, which many times they do not know about.”

Mirkin said plans are in the works to create a legal clinic in Mahoning County.

“Veterans are an underserved population and while I’m not a veteran I am from the area and I want to do what I can to help,” said Mirkin.

In the future Adams said she would like to focus her efforts on helping homeless and low-income female veterans.

“I would like to develop a transitional center that would provide legal and support services to women and their families,” said Adams. “Homelessness among female veterans is rising faster than any group of veterans and I would like to be sure they get the help they need.”