Western New York veterans at risk for becoming homeless have a new ally: the just-launched Veterans’ Economic Security Clinic at SUNY Buffalo Law School.
Students in the clinic, which was introduced in a Veterans Day event at the school, will provide free civil legal services to veterans facing eviction and consumer debt issues. The goal is to help them navigate the legal system to prevent homelessness and improve their overall financial security.
Clinical students will also conduct legal intake in Buffalo’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and work with community partners to recommend systemic policy changes on behalf of veterans. The first six students will begin work through the clinic in February, under the direction of Clinical Teaching Fellow Cody Jacobs. They will be admitted under New York’s student practice rule so they can take the lead in representing clients as student attorneys, including interviewing and counseling clients, negotiating with opposing counsel and appearing in court.
Jacobs, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, was previously a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in San Francisco, and an associate attorney in the Los Angeles office of Sidley Austin.
“This clinic will help serve critical needs in the veterans community while giving students the opportunity to get great hands-on experience,” said Professor Kim Diana Connolly, the Law School’s director of clinical legal education and vice dean for legal skills.
Connolly noted that the clients’ need is great. Many former service members come home to find barriers preventing them from securing basic necessities like affordable housing, she said, and often find themselves confronting debt collectors. Of the more than 33,000 veterans living in New York State, almost 10 percent of them are unemployed, Connolly said, and at least 2,000 veterans in the state are homeless.
At the clinic’s launch, speakers addressed the need for these civil legal services and spoke of the special challenges facing former members of the military. They also noted the collaborative nature of the clinic, as it partners with other organizations serving veterans in the community.
Said Charles F. Zukoski, the University at Buffalo’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, “As a public research university, we have a responsibility to improve the human condition. UB is very proud to collaborate with other public entities in easing veterans’ transition back to public life.” He also noted that UB opened a Veterans Services Office last year, and that the schools of nursing and social work have created a joint program focusing on caring for veterans.
Law School Dean Makua W. Mutua said the clinic “shows our commitment to our country’s very best. This clinic is an example of the work that has been going on here for a long time. We have a history and legacy of engagement with our community. … We teach our students to develop a social conscience, to sit between power and powerlessness and to help shrink that space of powerlessness that exists. The clinic is an exciting endeavor for us.”
Donna Li Puma, a social worker who works with veterans in Department of Veterans Affairs nursing homes – and a military veteran herself – said, “The words ‘economy security’ ring as loud as any bell or horn you can possibly imagine. The veterans that you’re going to meet in this program, they’re not all going to be in their 30s or 40s. I have people in their 90s who have very little understanding what their benefits could be. It’s important to find people to be fiduciaries and give these people some dignity in their final years. You’re going to bring to them dignity, honor and respect, and that is as important as the outcome you’re able to achieve for them.”
Cody Jacobs, who will lead the Veterans’ Economic Security Clinic, acknowledged the
“incredible amount of help and guidance we’ve received from our partners in the community. We’re truly standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The new clinic, he said, is “a continuation of a longstanding commitment of this school and this University to helping people in the community. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to develop valuable skills while helping people who really need and deserve our help. Our real work is still ahead, and I’m excited to get started.”
Also speaking at the event were Daniel J. Ryan, UB’s director of veteran services; Roman Fontana of the Veterans’ One-stop Center of Western New York; and Grace Andriette of Neighborhood Legal Services, which also works with veterans.