Vets receiving help with legal issues have improved mental health, less homelessness

Veterans receiving care at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center who also accessed legal help for civil issues they were facing experienced improvements in mental health and fewer days of homelessness, according to a recent study of medical-legal partnerships at VA facilities in Connecticut and New York.

The executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which provides free legal help to homeless and at-risk veterans facing civil issues such as credit card debt or eviction, said proposed legislation in Congress would allow the VA to further study the broader impact of these partnerships.

“It’s possible that legal help could be a low-cost way to reduce homelessness and improve mental health,” said Margaret Middleton, a co-author of the study and executive director of the center.

The Homeless Veterans Prevention Act would allow organizations like Middleton’s to provide civil legal aid at no cost to homeless and low-income vets with mental illness. The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said that “for vulnerable veterans, access to expert legal services within the VA could mean the difference between a safe, stable home and homelessness.” 

While the Constitution guarantees legal representation in criminal cases, the same right is not extended in civil cases, Middleton pointed out, meaning the “vast majority” of defendants in civil cases are unrepresented.

In 2009, a partnership was established between Middleton’s organization and the VA’s facilities in West Haven and Newington to help vets recovering from homelessness and mental illness address civil legal problems. The majority of the 500 veterans the center serves annually are fighting for VA disability benefits. Housing issues such as landlord-tenant disputes, family issues such as child support, and consumer issues such as credit card debt are among the most common problems the veterans faced. Such problems can affect veterans' health and well being, and if unresolved, can cause them to lose a job or their home.

But Middleton pointed out the funding model for the center, a nonprofit that receives grants and donations, is not sustainable. The bill in Congress would require the VA to fund this kind of civil legal aid, according to Blumenthal, who said the money could be distributed through grants or specific service payments.

The study of legal-medical partnerships in New York and Connecticut found that on average it took 5.4 hours to resolve a vet's legal issue at a cost of about $50 to $75 an hour. This means that on average it took about $270 to $405 to resolve the issue compared to the $10,000 to $60,000 it costs annually to provide care to a person who is chronically homeless, has a severe mental illness or both, the study points out.

j.bergman@theday.com

 

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