Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Opinion

Ernest Hooper: Bay Area Legal Services, longtime friend to needy, needs our help

The dual challenges feed off each other.

Veterans enduring a medical ordeal may lose sleep because they lack the legal means to acquire needed benefits to cover the costs. But losing sleep can worsen their condition.

It's not difficult to envision vets tossing and turning in the wee hours of the morning, wondering who will fight for them after they've fought for our country.

Recognizing the stress-induced issues that can arise at the intersection of healthcare and law, Bay Area Legal Services has enteredinto a medical-legal partnership at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg. It's one of only 13 such partnerships in the nation, and while a number of agencies service veterans, sometimes it helps to have a good lawyer helping navigate the system.

"There are several different kinds of benefits for veterans," said Bay Area Legal attorney Alexandra Srsic. "A lot of veterans don't know they're eligible for low income pension benefits. Then there are service connected disability benefits they may be eligible for, but you often have to fight really hard to acquire them.

"An attorney can make a huge difference."

The organization estimates it annually helps more than 1,000 veterans, not only with securing benefits but other basic needs, from maintaining employment to keeping their families stable to obtaining permanent housing.

But it needs to help more. Tampa Bay is home to more than 300,000 veterans, and of those an estimated 22,000 live at or below the federal poverty line. With limited funds, however, the group can't help everyone who seeks support.

On Thursday night, Bay Area Legal celebrated its 50th anniversary with a dinner at Higgins Hall that aimed to specifically raise funds for its new Veterans Legal Initiative Endowment Fund. The legal stalwarts seek to create a specific team of attorneys equipped with the knowledge to help low-income veterans.

It also wants to provide specialized training to Bay Area Legal staff and volunteer attorneys that is focused on veterans' unmet legal needs; hold self-help clinics to give the vets needed tools to navigate the system and coordinate with veterans agencies to ensure availability and access to the services and sources veterans need.

Of course, the organization does more than help veterans. It started in 1967 with the goal of granting access to justice for those whose lower socioeconomic status often leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in a courtroom. Since then, it's grown into a multi-county nonprofit with locations in Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

Last year, it served more than 17,600 individuals, families and community groups, often through programs aimed at addressing specific people, including children in foster care and domestic violence survivors who often seek solutions for life-or-death situations.

A Tampa Bay without Bay Area Legal would be a less stable community, with more people filling the courts and more people losing their living arrangements to eviction or foreclosure.

The attorneys employed at the agency bypass the larger salaries of mega firms to take on more difficult tasks — representing those who can't afford to pay hourly rates or four-figure retainer fees.

"All of us who choose to work in legal services do so because we want help people not fortunate enough to afford attorneys," Srsic said. "It has its own benefits — seeing how results change their lives and people really appreciating how much we've helped them.

"We can't fix everyone's problems and that's hard, talking with people at the bottom of the barrel," Srsic added. "But we show them respect and we listen to their problems. Even when we can't help them, they feel better after we listen to them and speak passionately to them. That's an important part of what we do."

Although the event concluded Thursday, the fundraising efforts are ongoing. Bay Area Legal Services aims to generate $300,000, which would qualify it for a $100,000 match from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.

If you want to help deserving veterans and needy residents grappling with the complexities of the legal system, contact Rose Brempong, development director, at (813) 232-1343, ext. 131, or online at bals.org.

Everybody deserves a good lawyer, and a good night's sleep.

That's all I'm saying.

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