NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Several people, each with their own personal struggle, clutched warm coffee Wednesday as they waited to visit with an attorney who might be able to offer some help.
By 9:30 a.m., the waitlist included 29 people who went to Room In The Inn’s downtown facility for the free legal clinic known as Project Homeless Experience Legal Protection, or H.E.L.P. Their reasons varied from civil to criminal matters, with some seeking expungements.
But like many others, James Mayo was waiting to find out if he could qualify for disability benefits. It was his fourth time applying for disability benefits after repeatedly getting denied, despite “serious health problems” keeping him from working.
“It’s very difficult to deal with,” Mayo said. “About 28 years ago, I got shot in the back twice. One went in and burst my appendix. The other one is in my hip bone. So, as I get older it’s becoming a problem. All the doctors, neurologists say I shouldn’t pick up anything over five pounds.”
Mayo had worked in the construction industry for several years before moving from Jackson to Nashville. Afterwards, he worked odd jobs, but said it “wasn’t enough to survive on.” Eventually he found himself living among tents on the street.
“I always saw these guys on the side of the street. I would give them money, but I never envisioned myself being in this situation,” Mayo said. “Now I truly understand what it’s all about. It humbled me.”
It became harder for him to rebound as he grew older, and after spending a few years on the streets, Mayo, who is now 60, said he finally turned to Room In The Inn for help. With shelter and access to resources, the one thing he said is still holding him back is his health.
“I just have to sit down and be still and try to let this process work. I’ve applied for my housing, but I can’t get the housing until I get finance,” Mayo said. “I don’t think I’ll have a problem with housing once my disability gets approved. I’m just going to take it day by day.”
Many people like Mayo struggle to exit homelessness because of issues navigating the legal system. To him, it was difficult to understand the process of qualifying for disability benefits, and many others are unaware of how to request expungements.
“I don’t understand it,” Mayo said. “I don’t know the process that the state goes through — what determines one way or another.”
That’s where attorneys like Jonathan Cole, a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Nashville office, step in. Baker Donelson was responsible for bringing the H.E.L.P. program to Nashville about 14 years ago after Cole said the law firm recognized a need among the city’s homeless.
“A lot of times there’s a legal issue that is an impediment or contributing factor that’s preventing them from getting more established, on their feet, into more permanent housing,” he said. “If we can remove some of those barriers, it’s a great help to them.”
Initially launched in New Orleans, the H.E.L.P. program has now been implemented in over 25 cities. The clinic in Nashville lasts for about two hours, with around five to ten attorneys from various law firms volunteering to help those who sign up understand and resolve any issues.
An average of 30 people attend each monthly session, which adds up to roughly 5,000 people who have received assistance since H.E.L.P. was brought to Nashville.
Room In The Inn Executive Director Rachel Hester said the program has been extremely helpful in breaking down “barriers that stand in the way of moving forward.”
“To have a lawyer be able to sit with them and walk them through and say, ‘It’s going to be OK’ is really the gift that they’re given,” Hester said. “It’s what you and I can maybe afford, but it’s not what everyone can afford. So, to make that resource available for everybody is a gift.”
Of the people who attended the clinic Wednesday, the majority were seeking help with criminal charges or social security benefits. Other common issues arise from child support payments, disputes with prior landlords or unpaid bills and court fees.
“They really just compound,” Cole said. “If somebody doesn’t have a good address, sometimes they don’t get notice of something that they need to appear in court, they need to send a child support payment or they need to show up and do something about a job.”
At times, it can become overwhelming for someone who is also facing issues associated with being unhoused, Hester said. Those who miss a court date could have their driver’s license suspended, or in some cases, be charged with a misdemeanor for failure to appear.
“A big thing that we have is people’s driver’s licenses have gotten suspended,” Cole said. “Then, if you don’t have a driver’s license it’s very difficult to do a lot of things in society, much less work and earn money.”
Many criminal charges stem from situational or mental health-related incidents, Cole said. According to a 2020 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, people who are experiencing homelessness are 11 times more likely to be arrested than someone who is housed.
“It’s a pretty high percentage,” he said. “You have a lot of mental health issues contributing to it.”
Some common charges attorneys who volunteer with the H.E.L.P. program see among Nashville’s homeless are loitering, public intoxication or nuisance violations.
“A lot of those are not reflecting a real criminal intent, especially people who are down on their luck,” Cole said. “Trying to get those kinds of violations resolved without having too much of a criminal record is much better for them and better for society.”
A representative from the Metropolitan Nashville Public Defender’s Office attends the monthly sessions to assist with expungements. Often, they are able to help clear criminal records and waive court fees in just a matter of days.
Cole said the attorneys “can’t solve everything,” but many times the issue is resolved.
Sometimes it’s fixed simply by “pointing them in the right direction” since one of the biggest hurdles can be learning to navigate the legal system, Cole said. The results, like a reinstated driver’s license, can “change somebody’s life.”
“We have a lot of things built in the system to restrict people,” he said. “I think if we could continue to try to remove these barriers that we talked about so people who are able to support themselves, that they can do that.”
After attorneys help point their clients in the right direction, Room In The Inn steps in to provide them with more comprehensive services such as education and workforce development programming. Hester said that gives them another leg up on their road to recovery.
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“It allows us as a service provider not only to help before they go in to talk to a lawyer, but on the back end, to ask, ‘Now what is the next step?’” Hester said. “They’re not going it alone. We’re along with them on the journey and doing that resource navigation.”
Mayo said Room In The Inn already “saved (his) life” when he first went to them for services only a couple of years ago. Now, while waiting to speak with an attorney Wednesday, he said he’s hopeful that his life is about to turn around.
“I recommend it to anyone who is down on their luck. They’ve got a system set up to help. The hand is out there, all you have to do is take it,” Mayo said. “But It’s not going to happen overnight. We didn’t get in this mess overnight. It’s a process you have to go through.”
While legal issues are a common barrier for Nashville’s homeless, Cole said he believes mental health services are also vital to addressing homelessness in the city. Still, attorneys remain ready to help at Room In The Inn every third Wednesday.
“It’s a challenge, and mental health is something that’s a very big issue,” Cole said. “But for all that outside of that, people who are just down on their luck, this is what really helps and assists them with getting back on their feet.”
To find out more information about Project Homeless Experience Legal Protection, visit www.homelesslegalprotection.com.