Commentary: Want to make a real difference for struggling vets? Ensure access to legal aid

As a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, David jumped out of perfectly good airplanes for a living.

Like many seniors in New Hampshire, David and his wife Penny recently jumped into a new challenge: raising their young grandchildren while the children’s parents recover from substance addiction.

But last year, David discovered an eviction notice in his mailbox. It gave no explanation; it simply ordered David and Penny to leave the apartment before the end of the month. He later learned his landlady had sold the building and the new owner wanted to move into their unit.

David and Penny scrambled and found a new apartment for them and the kids, but it wouldn’t be ready until after they were required to move out. He called several agencies for help, including the Veterans Administration, but no one had any clear answers about his rights. Facing the prospect of sleeping in the car or worse, David urgently needed help the VA can’t provide: civil legal aid.

According to a new study from the Department of Veterans Affairs, at least five out of the top 10 problems leading to homelessness among veterans cannot be solved without access to civil legal aid.

The study, which surveyed more than 6,000 homeless veterans and service providers, found that many veterans are able to secure food, medical services and substance-abuse treatment when they need it. But for problems such as fighting evictions, securing disability benefits or restoring a driver’s license, many veterans are not receiving the help they need. Legal aid is often critical to ensure that veterans find justice and get the benefits they have earned — and can keep a roof over their heads.

Civil legal aid — legal representation in civil cases for people who can’t afford a private attorney — has proven effective in keeping veterans in their homes. As David was facing homelessness, he found a civil legal aid group called the Legal Advice & Referral Center (LARC) in Concord.

LARC runs a hotline to help prepare low-income people for civil court appearances and refers eligible and appropriate cases to other organizations for further help. With LARC’s help, David successfully argued for a court to dismiss the eviction and secured the right to stay in the apartment until their new home was available.

Another challenge many of our veterans face is securing the benefits and services that they need to live with dignity. This process can often involve a byzantine maze of procedures that can take years to resolve.

Horace, who left his family in Littleton to enlist in the Air Force and graduated from basic training on his 18th birthday, knows firsthand how difficult this can be.

When his tour was done, Horace built a career in construction and trucking, and re-enlisted in the National Guard.

During his time with the Guard, he suffered a back injury that left him with herniated disks, unable to lift much weight, or stand or sit for extended periods of time, effectively ending his ability to work. But his application for disability benefits was denied. He turned to food stamps and other state and local welfare programs, but some months, he was still unable to afford healthy food or necessary medications. One month, he could not afford to buy toothpaste.

LARC referred Horace to NH Legal Assistance (NHLA), where a paralegal helped him prepare his paperwork and represented him at his appeal hearing.

Thanks to LARC and NHLA, Horace was granted his appeal and a disability benefit that enables him to live with dignity. He was able to buy a present for his granddaughter’s birthday. He no longer relies on state and local programs to barely make ends meet.

With nearly 50,000 veterans sleeping on the streets across America each night, it’s clear we are failing to serve those who have served our country. New Hampshire community leaders step up in many ways to help our veterans, to show them our appreciation and ensure they have access to employment, healthcare and mental healthcare when they come home.

Civil legal aid programs receive some state and federal funding, but it’s far from adequate to meet the need. In New Hampshire, we can do our part by donating to the NH Campaign for Legal Services, which raises private funds for LARC and NHLA. It’s time to make the investments we must to ensure our veterans can access the American promise of justice for all, the American promise they served to protect.