2025 Design-Your-Own Fellowship Applications are Open

Learn More & Apply

Headshot of Melissa West

Melissa West

  • Hosted by Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
  • Sponsored by Hyatt Hotels
  • Service location Chicago, Illinois
  • Law school Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law
  • Issue area Housing/Eviction, Housing/Homelessness
  • Fellowship class year 2024
  • Program Design-Your-Own Fellowship

The Project

Melissa’s (she/they) project will provide legal representation, outreach, and advocacy to unsheltered individuals and families in Chicago through a specialized community lawyering service delivery model.

The number of people experiencing street homelessness in Chicago is rising. CCH’s 2023 Homeless Estimate Report estimates that 68,440 Chicagoans experienced homelessness in 2021, an approximate 4.3% increase from 2020. Of these, 7,985 more people were staying in shelters or on the streets. Disturbingly, 82% percent of people experiencing homelessness in Chicago are people of color. Chicago is also experiencing an ongoing humanitarian crisis with many newly arriving asylum seekers remaining unsheltered, resulting in urgent and new pressing needs amongst these populations requiring tailored legal support. Many asylum seekers are families with children, a differing demographic than is normally present living on the streets. They, and others unhoused, need connections to permanent housing opportunities, education aid, and sustainable means of accessing aid for their legal needs.

Unsheltered folks often confront high degrees of instability and lack access to transportation, the internet, and stable modes of communication. On top of their already daunting circumstances, these same people are often then subjected to unjust criminalization for engaging in necessary life-sustaining activities like sleeping and sitting in public. People experiencing homelessness need direct unobstructed pathways for legal aid access to promote long-term housing stability, better-understood needs of those served, and protection of their civil rights and liberties.

Melissa was inspired to pursue this project after her work with historically harmed communities of color, including urban Indigenous peoples in the Denver Metro area and low-income Black and Latiné communities across Chicago. She has witnessed firsthand how access to legal services and advocacy can be a lifeline to those most disenfranchised and set up to fail.

Melissa’s family experienced housing insecurity after the birth of her youngest sibling with Down syndrome and his related medical bills during the almost simultaneous 2008 housing crisis. This personal experience informs her deep passion and commitment to housing justice.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Melissa will work with the Law Project for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to provide outreach, education, legal services, and representation to people who are unhoused or unstably housed. Melissa’s work incorporates direct street outreach to meet clients where they are literally staying–bringing legal services to unsheltered clients in street and community settings. Throughout the project, Melissa will collaborate with the unsheltered community and persons with lived experience of homelessness to account for unique developments in the growing street homelessness crisis, with the intention of promoting broader policy advocacy to address systemic problems and work towards ending homelessness.

As a child, my family faced housing insecurity due to unexpected destabilizing medical bills. So, I am honored to work as an EJW Fellow to address the tenuous access to justice for unhoused and unstably housed folks. A holistic and compassionate legal approach to identify and address the unique needs of unhoused street-based folks in Chicago is necessary.

Melissa West /
2024 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Meet Other Fellows Like Melissa

View All

Gregory Alan Jackson Jr.

Host: The Sustainable Economies Law Center

Sponsor: Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

Photo of Emily Chong

Emily Chong

Host: Neighborhood Legal Services Program

Sponsor: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP

Margaret Burgess

Host: Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc.

Sponsor: Cox Enterprises, Eversheds Sutherland

Christopher Helwig

Host: Lenox Hill Neighborhood House

Sponsor: Morgan Stanley, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP