Homeless Project Reaches Out to Veterans

Center City lawyer Thomas Duffy has underwritten the cost of the Homeless Advocacy Project employing lawyer Neha Yadav (right) full tie to work exclusively with veterans.

Life fell apart quickly for the young Marine when he returned home to Philadelphia from Iraq a few years ago.

While deployed, he worked as a guard, sometimes protecting convoys from ambushes.

Back home, the veteran slept with a knife under his mattress. Or a sword.

He could not sit with his back to a door. He could not handle crowded SEPTA buses. He was tormented by nightmares and would wake up sweating and screaming that he was under attack.

His girlfriend couldn't take it anymore.

He tried to get medical help, but was denied benefits by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He was told he was ineligible because his discharge had been "other than honorable."

"He didn't take kindly to being barked at and would bark back," said Michael Taub, a lawyer for the nonprofit Homeless Advocacy Project. "The military has little tolerance for insubordination"

Taub met the veteran at a North Philadelphia shelter and offered his help. After more than a year of pressing his case, Taub was able to get him medical coverage from the VA, as well as a disability payment.

"This was the type of case where the system becomes very difficult to navigate," Taub said. "And that's the type of situation where we're at our best."

Others have noticed.

In the last year, federal support for the project's work with homeless veterans has doubled to $110,000.

Three Center City law firms - Pepper Hamilton, Cozen O'Connor, and DLA Piper - have reached out to Taub to train their lawyers on how to help veterans.

And Thomas Duffy, a personal-injury lawyer in Center City, has underwritten the cost of the Homeless Advocacy Project's employing another full-time lawyer - Neha Yadav - to work exclusively with homeless veterans.

"There's a lot of lip service to, 'We're taking care of our vets' and then we don't," Duffy said. "It's a group that needs it."

In recent weeks, the VA system has come under fire, with some critics in Washington calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The uproar stems from revelations in Phoenix that veterans have died waiting for medical care.

Marsha Cohen, the Homeless Advocacy Project's executive director, said she was not surprised.

"It's not that the VA doesn't want to help," Cohen said. "But they are overwhelmed and not sufficiently staffed. They can't handle the volume."

Applications for medical care or disability benefits "can languish for years," she said. "There are no deadlines with the VA."

"Unless veterans have an attorney who is pushing their cases, they are not going to get benefits," she said.

The project works with about 100 homeless veterans a year. Cohen said most suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

Their descent into homelessness is "a slow spiral," Cohen said. "People lose control of emotions and their ability to comport themselves, to manage relationships, to take care of themselves, to get up and go to work."

About 50 lawyers in the city have volunteered to work with the project on cases for homeless veterans. Because of federal rules, they must receive three to six hours of training before they can be certified by the VA to offer pro bono help to veterans.

"We've had a few big wins," Taub said. Some veterans have received six-figure settlements for back benefits.

Taub, meanwhile, has become a nationally recognized expert in this area. He presents two large training sessions a year to accredit volunteers.

"It's one of the areas across the country where attorneys are recognizing that they can help," Taub said. "There's a general goodwill of doing right by veterans."