TAMPA, Fla. — More than 100 homeless Tampa residents have received free legal assistance through Project H.E.L.P. (Homeless Experience Legal Protection) since the programs launch last July. Spearheaded by Shumaker attorney Jennifer G. Roeper, the program is open to the homeless from 6 to 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at Metropolitan Ministries, a nonprofit that serves poor and homeless families in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.
H.E.L.P. is a national program that began in 2004, when a federal district court judge began recruiting volunteer lawyers to assist the homeless in New Orleans. The American Bar Association has since taken on the project as a national mission, and each year selects five cities in which to launch it. Tampa was one of five cities selected in 2014, and represents the 20th city to be touched by the program so far.
The free clinic typically helps between six and 10 homeless residents each week, with attorneys from all kinds of legal backgrounds tackling everything from simple paperwork to complex litigation.
In one case, a homeless man had been barred from entering a shelter due to an old outstanding arrest warrant. The matter was cleared up with one phone call from a volunteer attorney. “That literally changed his life,” Roeper says.
But not all cases are so easy to solve. Some require recurring attention, like that of a disabled man struggling to receive Social Security payments because he doesn’t have the proper immigration paperwork. As an immigration attorney with Shumaker and a co-administrator of the firm’s Immigration Practice, Roeper knows how long immigration cases can take. “It’s not a quick process,” she says. “But with our weekly hours, we can keep those cases moving forward.”
Several other local law firms have donated their talent and time to the cause, including Hill Ward Henderson, Foley & Lardner LLP and Trenam Kemker. Members of the Hillsborough Association of Women Lawyers and the William Reece Smith, Jr. Litigation American Inn of Court, along with corporate sponsors and nonprofits, have also participated. Roeper attends each weekly clinic to oversee the program, and attorneys at Shumaker will fill in any time there is an open period in the schedule.
The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative reported last year that in Hillsborough County alone 2,243 men, women and children are homeless, a number that includes 144 families representing 18 percent of the total number.
“Homeless people are not always what you expect them to be,” Roeper says. “I’ve been surprised by how many families are coming in. Dads with kids, moms with kids. That’s been eye-opening. It stops you and makes you think.”
To reach more clients, H.E.L.P. is hoping to partner with organizations conducting what are known as “Point-in-Time” counts, attempts to document exactly how many people are homeless in a given community on a specific day. The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative is set to conduct its survey on Thurs., Feb. 26.
Roeper encourages supporters, even those without a legal background, to volunteer their time. “We’ve had some amazing successes in our first seven months,” Roeper says, “but we need to reach even more of the homeless in our area. We’ll take help from anyone. We need manpower.”
About Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP
Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick is a full-service business law firm with more than 240 lawyers, 60 paralegals and 495 employees in five offices: Toledo and Columbus, Ohio; Tampa and Sarasota, Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In each of its markets, Shumaker is the premier provider of quality legal services to individuals, small businesses, health care providers, nonprofits and Fortune 500 and international corporations.