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Equal Justice at Work: November 2012

Executive Director's Corner

Each year we come together as a nation to celebrate Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to honor those who have served in armed forces.  On this day meant to recognize and support these brave men and women, it is unsettling to know that so many of them have returned home to face more battles.  Veterans face higher levels of unemployment, incarceration, and homelessness than the population at large. They are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans; 37% say that, whether diagnosed or not, they have experienced post-traumatic stress. To address the needs of veterans, lawyers trained in housing, criminal law, public benefits, employment, and military law are badly needed.

In this month’s newsletter we are highlighting a whole segment of our network of Fellows—those working on Veterans issues. There are currently 25 Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps Legal Fellows working across the country to help veterans and their families who are struggling to obtain benefits, find housing, and access mental health care.

November is also the month of Thanksgiving, and I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the more than 800 supporters of Equal Justice Works who came together on October 25 in Washington, DC, for our annual fundraising dinner, this year honoring Randy Milch, general counsel of Verizon.  I was thrilled by the outpouring of support from all of the individuals, law firms and corporations who supported our event and helped us raise more than $2.4 million to support our programs! 

Our theme this year was “Spreading Seeds of Justice,” a reference to how the impact of Equal Justice Works multiplies when we place a Fellow in the field.  Watch our newest video to see how it works.  This concept was brought to life during the dinner as we heard stories from Equal Justice Works Fellows, alumni and sponsors who are having tremendous impact on access to justice across the country. 

We asked dinner guests to text in a contribution to support another fellowship as we did at our 25th Anniversary Dinner.  Incredibly, we raised $50,000 during the dinner, which will be matched by two anonymous donors, and will allow us to fund one more lawyer with a two-year fellowship. Then, to my surprise, our board chair, Laura Stein, announced that the fellowship would be named after me in honor of my 20 years of service to Equal Justice Works.  Nothing could make me happier, and seeing those contributions and text messages up on the screen—many of them from Fellows—were so touching and inspiring!  I will never forget it.

Thank you for making our work possible and for helping to spread more seeds of justice across the country.


Addressing the Veterans Crisis

Each year, thousands of soldiers complete their military service and return to civilian life only to face poverty and homelessness. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, only 8% of the general population can legally claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of our country's homeless are veterans. Homelessness is not the only issue facing the men and women who have served the United States; many Veterans are facing mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma, or they just need helping gaining access to their VA benefits. Whatever trouble they face, Veterans need good lawyers to help them assimilate when they get home, and Equal Justice Works along with AmeriCorps has made a dedicated effort to address these issues through public interest law.

In the past two years, Equal Justice Works has deployed 25 Fellows into the field, from California to West Virginia, New York to Washington State. These Fellows—some of them Veterans themselves—have made great strides in easing the transition from military to civilian life for service members. The Fellows have done this by making connections between community organizations, legal aid offices, and Veterans Affairs offices, creating a holistic approach to meeting veterans' needs. Meet the Fellows:

2012 Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows Anna Levine-Gronningsater and Christy Ferioli are serving at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles working with housing and homelessness issues, an insidious problem for Veterans, and Christy also dedicates some of her time to addressing mental health issues for Veterans.

Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Ely Grinvald is at Public Counsel’s Center for Veteran’s Advancement (CVA) in Los Angeles. He works alongside another AmeriCorps Legal Fellow MacKenzie Canniff, who addresses housing issues at the Center. Ely and MacKenzie are both following in the footsteps of Nancy Wheeler and Stacy Zimmerman, the first Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows to be placed at the CVA. Key to the CVA’s success is its partnership with the Los Angeles Salvation Army. The Fellows at CVA work closely with community partners like the University of Southern California’s School of Military Social Work, the Volunteers of America and The Salvation Army-Haven. Connecting in this way with the community and having a broad reach at the national level makes the CVA a “one stop shop” to educate, advocate for and assist veterans and their families.

The Legal Aid Society of Louisville, Kentucky is home to Roy Christopher Denny, a 2012 Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow. Roy works with Legal Aid and the Jefferson County Veterans Treatment Court to create a partnership between the two that will approach veterans' issues holistically.

At the San Diego Public Defender’s Office, 2012 Fellow Adriane Bracciale is working to educate her community—including other attorneys, judges, and law students—on sentencing issues for Veterans. W. Edward Neusteter is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps alumnus who also served at the San Diego Public Defender’s Office.

Antoinette N. Balta is in Santa Ana, California, at Public Law Center (PLC). PLC launched the Veteran’s Justice Project that assists veterans with their legal affairs that include services such as expungement, discharge upgrades, and veterans' benefits.  Her mission, through this project, is to strengthen the lives of her veteran clients so that they are able to thrive without heavy legal burdens.

2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow Austin Baumgarten (sponsored by Greenberg Traurig) recently started his project at Swords to Plowshares. Austin’s project aims to provide direct legal representation to veterans suffering from psychiatric disabilities. Through his work, Austin hopes to affect global policy change regarding less-than-honorable discharge for veterans with psychiatric disabilities so that they can have easier access to their VA benefits.

Legal Aid of West Virginia is home to Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows L.G. Corder (an Army Veteran turned public interest lawyer) and Kristin Maun, who are following in the footsteps of alumni Jordan Ballard and Patrick Brooks at the Veterans Legal Support Project. The Project provides free legal services to low-income veterans via direct representation and advice and counsel for civil issues like landlord-tenant, consumer, employment, public benefits, and disability issues.

In Los Angeles’s Inner City Law Center, 2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows Kara Mahoney and Dave Smith are at a project started by Elly Kugler and Annette Lin. The Homeless Veterans Project provides legal support to low-income and homeless veterans, with a special focus on serving women, people with mental illness and traumatic brain injury, survivors of sexual assault, and LGBT veterans. 

Eric Marfin is a 2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Texas Legal Services Center’s Veteran’s Legal Assistance Project. Eric advocates on behalf of veterans to remove or change stigmatizing and unsubstantiated military discharge characterizations, particularly for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. But that is only half of Eric’s project: he is also committed to protecting financially vulnerable veterans from predatory payday lenders.

Polli Pollem is a retired veteran serving as a 2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Indiana Legal Services, Inc. She provides civil legal assistance to active duty military, National Guard, Reserves, veterans and military families, and she coordinates with Indiana pro bono districts and the local bar associations to increase the number of pro bono attorneys serving veterans. 

Working on a holistic approach to serving veterans in Baltimore, 2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Rochelle E. Richardson is serving her term at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc.

Marcy Wehling is a 2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Legal Assistance of Western New York’s Veterans Project. The Project provides front-line legal services, including on-site legal intake. By meeting veterans in this safe space, Marcy is able to facilitate trusting relationships and provide more accessible services, ensuring that as many veterans as possible receive the assistance they need and deserve once they have returned to civilian life.

In Washington State, Lauren Peach started the Veterans Project at the Northwest Justice Project from the ground up. She recently passed the torch to Alex West, a 2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellow. The Veterans Project addressed the needs of low-income and homeless Veterans through needs assessment, community collaboration, screening, intake, and education. The Project conducted mobile legal clinics and through the project, Lauren created a manual for lawyers working with veterans that is now in use throughout Washington.

And finally, in Washington DC, Nina Wu is a 2011 AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Nina’s project is devoted to helping homeless veterans gain access to shelter and stability through direct representation, outreach and community education.


Educational Debt Tip of the Month

Decipher repayment plans and take control of your future!

On Nov. 1, the Department of Education published its final rules for the new Pay As You Earn plan, adding a new income-driven repayment option to the existing Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR), Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Income Sensitive Repayment options. When Pay As You Earn is available (we’ll let you know as soon as that happens) borrowers will have four income-driven repayment plans alone to choose between.

Fortunately, Equal Justice Works recently released a new e-book, Take Control of Your Future (available now in the Kindle Store), which can help you decipher these and other repayment options.

So how will Pay As You Earn work? As we explain in Take Control of Your Future, the amount you’ll pay on your eligible loans in Pay As You Earn is limited to 10 percent of your discretionary income. (We even explain how your discretionary income is calculated.) Any amount remaining on your loans after 20 years will be forgiven. And Pay As You Earn is a qualifying repayment plan for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which can enable you to earn forgiveness after only 10 years of low monthly payments.

Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that. To be eligible for Pay As You Earn you need to be a “new borrower,” meaning you must have taken out your first federal loan after Sept. 30, 2007 and received a disbursement on a loan after Sept. 30, 2011. In addition, you must have a “partial financial hardship” to qualify for Pay As You Earn and to remain eligible for the 10 percent cap once you’re enrolled in it.

So how do you figure out what’s best for you in this complicated and evolving world of student debt? Keep up to date on the latest news by reading our Student Loan Ranger blog on US News and following us on Twitter (use #studentdebthelp). Attend a free webinar to gain more insight into how IBR, ICR and Pay As You Earn work and to ask our student debt experts questions. And read Take Control of Your Future to get a comprehensive, step-by-step breakdown of all of your options.