Hillsborough lawyers sign on for Project HELP's mission to aid the homeless

Published June 11, 2014

TAMPA — When the chance to bring a program to Hillsborough County to help homeless people with legal issues crossed Jennifer Roeper's desk, she couldn't say no.

"We see a lot of pro bono cases generally," said Roeper, an immigration lawyer. "It's a natural fit and it's needed."

Roeper, a lawyer with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Tampa, is helping to bring the national Project HELP to the area. Volunteer lawyers with Homeless Experience Legal Protection will spend an hour and a half at Metropolitan Ministries each Tuesday night beginning in July helping homeless people at the shelter tackle legal issues.

They met Tuesday night this week to learn how the program works.

Metropolitan Ministries gets 120 visitors each day, said Tim Marks, president and CEO. Sometimes things like a lost identification card or immigration issues keep someone from finding a job, he said.

"The bottom line is we want to get things right," he said. "At the end of the day, these things are barriers to employment."

Federal Judge Jay Zainey started Project HELP in New Orleans in 2004. He went with other judges to serve food at a nearby homeless shelter. He felt good about it, he said, until he started really thinking about it.

"I had a sense of emptiness in doing that," he said.

Serving food at shelters is important, he said, "but we as lawyers, we who have law degrees can do something more."

The program is now in 23 cities. Nancy Degan, chairwoman-elect of the American Board Association Section of Litigation and a lawyer with Baker Donelson, also from New Orleans, made it her goal to add 10 by 2015. Tampa is part of a group of five taking on the program this year, with another five following next year.

"This is exactly the sort of thing the ABA should be involved in," Degan said. "Any one of us could be on the street. You never can tell what will happen in life."

Volunteering with the program has been gratifying, she said.

"You get so much more than you give," she said.

Organizers look for well-run shelters to take on the program. Roeper has served on the Metropolitan Ministries board of ambassadors for two years with others in the legal and business communities.

The program needs volunteers to help with administrative tasks, too, Roeper said. They hope to have enough volunteers to start the program at Metropolitan Ministries and eventually expand to other shelters.

Many of the people the lawyers in the program help don't really have legal issues, Zainey said.

"You and I know that because we're lawyers," he said, speaking to a room of potential volunteers at the Shumaker office Tuesday night. "They don't know that."

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Zainey told them about a Wall Street lawyer in New York City who helped a man who couldn't get a job because he had a 10-year-old warrant for his arrest for a marijuana possession charge in San Francisco.

The case was dismissed and the warrant recalled with one phone call to the county attorney's office in California. The man now works as a dishwasher and is off the street, Zainey said.

"She heard his problem, his life-altering problem. She picks up the phone," Zainey said. "This one call changed that man's life."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at