Angel Watkins served in the Navy for eight years. She's been out of the service for almost as long. Dealing with a domestic situation involving her son, she didn't know where to turn. She tried common channels like Child Protective Services.
"CPS told me to communicate with the father and use age-appropriate discipline. So when he's still coming back with bruises what can you do? What's the next step to protect your child?" Watkins said.
Despite a part-time job as a patient escort at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Angel was unaware that free legal assistance is offered to veterans courtesy the Houston Bar Association. Eventually she learned of the program through a social worker.
The Bar has been assisting veterans since 2008. They hold free clinics at the VA Center every Friday afternoon. Andrew Lehmann oversees the program.
"We have an ethos in the military that says, ‘Leave no man behind.’ So I feel like what I'm doing is trying to follow through on that ethos and leave no man behind. Nobody that struggles because of their service or is left behind because of it should go without legal services, and that's what I'm trying to provide,” he says.
An attorney and vet, Lehmann says the program has closed over 1,000 cases in the last year. And more than 500 attorneys have provided over 15,000 hours of legal service.
Kevin Clark is an attorney with King & Spalding. He says a sense of patriotic duty drew him to the program.
Clark was able to help the widow of a veteran who was being sued by a contractor hired by the city of Houston to bring her home up to code – and then fired by the city for not doing the work. When the contractor couldn't sue Houston because of sovereign immunity, he sued Clark's client.
"He said I want all the money even though I didn't do the work, and then turned around and sued this poor widow who didn't have any money to pay him in the first place – that's why the city was paying for this – and wanted all the money for work that he hadn't done," After nine months and a bench trial, Clark helped his client save her home.
He thinks the case highlights the great need for what's being done through the Veterans Legal Initiative. "These people should obviously win, but you kind of need a lawyer to get you over the line in a lot of cases."
According to a survey by the Department of Veteran Affairs, housing is the biggest issue for vets. Jennifer Jenkins is a former vet and attorney. She says without a place to call home, veterans too often fall into a downward spiral.
"There's mental health, there's physical health, lack of opportunities. Once you're at the point where you are homeless, applying for a job, being able to go to that job, being able to get to that job, you know it's kind of putting the cart before the horse." Jenkins says.
With vets saying housing assistance is most important, it's difficulty involving medical benefits that seems to grab the headlines.
Abby Parson is also an attorney with King & Spalding. "The veteran's process from my experience is almost a certain denial of all claims for one reason or another. And then appellate process where my client is currently sitting can take up to four years for one reason or another," she says.
Parsons is helping a vet that claims an inoculation by the Army in the 1960's gave him Hepatitis C. He's looking for financial compensation. Parsons says veterans need attorneys because the process is lengthy and difficult.
Whatever the reason, the fact the program has helped over 14,000 vets in eight years, shows there's a need. Angel Watkins’ reaction after attending a clinic highlights the relief a veteran can feel when provided free legal assistance.
"I wish this would've been given back to me in April, but then I didn't know. And I think that things will probably lighten up and some of the stress will come up off of me." she says.
The clinics are held Fridays from 1:00pm to 5:00pm.