|Clifford Kato, left, and Rory O'Sullivan sort out a case.
Photo by Eric Gonzalez (Equal Justice Coalition).
Instead of wearing white lab coats and carrying stethoscopes, the staff and volunteers at the Housing Justice Project clinic wear serious suits and pack laptops. Otherwise, the sense of urgency is much the same as any emergency room you may have seen. But the mission of this clinic is to prevent homelessness, not to patch up injuries.
I had never visited the HJP clinic before I recently walked into Room W-314 of the King County Courthouse. The office was a beehive of activity, but fortunately the HJP's Managing Attorney Rory O'Sullivan spotted me at the door and waved me in.
While simultaneously offering direction to volunteers, Rory gave me an orientation to the work that the Housing Justice Project has been doing since 1997. The HJP mission seems simple enough. It is a homelessness prevention program providing accessible, mostly volunteer legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction in King County. As usual though, the devil is in the details.
In this case the details are found in the lives of some 1,500 individuals each year who find their way to the clinics operated by HJP at the courthouse and at the Regional Justice Center in Kent. Both locations open their doors at 8 a.m. as volunteers and staff begin the intake process with the prospective clients lining the hallway.
First, they assess whether a prospective client qualifies for HJP services. If so, they scan the often confusing mash-up of eviction notices, cancelled checks, scrawled notes and court papers while they listen to the client's story. Just like a medical ER, this is the beginning of the triage process. Does the client just need information or perhaps help negotiating with a landlord? Or is the client facing a legal proceeding within hours that could see her worldly belongings stacked on the curb outside her apartment house?
Rory pointed to the big white board on the wall where the lives of these people in crisis are summarized in a few quick, carefully organized notes. Those notes ensure that clients get a shot at the kind of legal assistance that can make the difference between a roof over their heads that night or sleeping in a shelter. Rory pointed to one client's name - let's call him Roger Pennell - and said that shadowing the team working on this case would be a good way to understand the work of HJP.
I was then introduced to Cat Connell, a second-year Seattle University law student. She had done a summer internship with HJP and somehow finds time during the school year to volunteer at the clinic. Next I met Clifford Kato, a 2013 University of Washington Law School graduate. While Clifford flicked through a stack of papers that Mr. Pennell had brought with him, Cat briefed us on what she had learned in her hallway interview with the client.
Mr. Pennell was paralyzed as an infant by a rare brain disease. Today, as an adult, he struggles to walk. He frequently loses his balance and falls. He had asked the landlord for a ground-floor unit so he would not have to climb the stairs to his 300-square-foot unit. Instead, the landlord assigned him a second-
floor unit. When Mr. Pennell walks around his apartment, his clumping footsteps - and the occasional fall - make noise that regularly results in complaints from the downstairs neighbor.
With that summary, Clifford suggested that we meet the client in the hallway.
Mr. Pennell was well spoken, but he had the air of resignation of someone who has struggled with a disability his entire life. He was certain that he had never gotten notice that he had to appear at a hearing to avoid being evicted. Yes, there had been a delay in paying a month of rent from his disability check, but all required payments had been mailed. And, frankly, there was nothing he could do about the noise of his heavy footsteps.
He was tired of the hassles. He was prepared to move. But he now faced eviction by the sheriff the next day. And his new apartment would not be available for 10 days.
Clifford and Cat jumped into action. They began preparing pleadings to seek a stay. Meanwhile, Clifford was able to reach the landlord's attorney. After some negotiations, HJP was successful in getting an agreed order to delay the eviction just long enough to allow Mr. Pennell to get moved. As soon as the order was signed by the commissioner, a copy was taken to the sheriff's office to stop the eviction for 10 days.
Disaster was averted for Mr. Pennell, but there was little time to celebrate the success. Rory told me that the team was already working on the rest of the cases listed on the whiteboard. One client was visually impaired, one required an ASL interpreter, one spoke only Spanish. A Somali client in subsidized housing needed help. As did the Iranian woman whose husband had recently died. All told, eight clients were served by HJP that day. A ninth showed up, but had to be asked to return on Monday when there would be room on the whiteboard to list his name and volunteers ready to offer assistance.
The Housing Justice Project is just one of KCBA's award-winning pro bono programs. All of them are made possible by the incredible work of hundreds and hundreds of KCBA volunteers.
Be part of the effort. We can't promise you a white lab coat, but you will sleep well knowing you kept the roof over at least one client's head.
KCBA President Steve Rovig is a principal with Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. where his practice emphasizes commercial real estate. Rovig can be reached at email@example.com or 206-470-7620.