Jeffrey Yungman, an attorney based in Charleston, South Carolina, is used to clients experiencing homelessness dropping into his office unannounced. Yungman’s legal office is based in a homeless shelter that offers social services, called One80 Place. His work is exclusively dedicated to handling civil legal issues of the shelter’s residents.
One80 Place is one of the few shelters across the country that offers on-site legal services. Yungman and a full-time paralegal are at the shelter five days a week. They host a drop-in legal clinic on Tuesdays and Thursdays where any resident of the shelter can come see them about problems they’re having. Another attorney handles veteran’s services, although they are not based at the shelter.
“We have unlimited access to a lot of our clients,” Yungman says.
The location is helpful for people experiencing homelessness, who may not always have a cell phone or be easy to contact. “If we can’t find someone because they don’t have a phone and they live on the street they can pop in anytime,” says LeaAnn Adkins, a paralegal with One 80Place. “They don’t need to be dressed up because it’s a fancy law office downtown.”
Adkins says she gets approached by people looking for help before she even walks into her office. “A lot of my work gets done in the parking lot,” she says, “because people are waiting there for me to say here’s that paper you needed.”
“We’ll work on any legal issue that impacts their homelessness,” Yungman says. This includes eviction cases, tenant and landlord issues, disability cases, and people who are late on child support. The legal team also works with people at risk of becoming homeless, which includes tenants in disputes with their landlords. “Often people are taken advantage of when they’re, let’s just say, on the lowest rung of the rental ladder,” Adkins says. The legal team helps tenants make demands of their landlords for repairs and intervene in rent disputes.
Much of the legal work that comes to One80 Place involves disability claims, helping people to get approved for government payments so they can afford rent. “Sometimes people are homeless because they simply cannot work,” Adkins says. But the disability claims process can be hard to navigate. Clients may have to respond quickly to appeal a decision, which can be difficult even for someone with a fixed address. Whereas some attorneys don’t represent disability cases until a hearing is scheduled, One80 Place represents them from the moment they apply, helping them get income as soon as possible.
The legal team also spends time helping people obtain ID if they don’t have it; a lack of identification can be a barrier for receiving services for people experiencing homelessnesss. “We can get them ID quicker than anybody else,” Yungman says, because their location in the shelter allows them to locate clients and their paperwork faster.
Yungman says prior to the pandemic, his caseload consisted of about 120-125 open cases, although that caseload has dropped because many residents were relocated away from the shelter. While that is a lot, Yungman says many of the cases are ongoing and awaiting determination.
The legal team does not work on criminal cases because of restrictions from its grant funding. However, criminal cases brought against people experiencing homelessness are often diverted to Charleston’s “homeless court,” which has existed since 2016 and which convenes in a conference room in One80 Place.
These diversion courts are for people arrested for what are essentially crimes of homelessness — public urination, sleeping outside or public consumption of alcohol. Judges at these courts find alternatives for people experiencing homelessness rather than sending them to jail. This can include “participation in community-based treatment or services,” according to the American Bar Association, which has helped set up the courts across the country. One80Place’s legal team helps coordinate with these homeless courts, making sure clients know when and where their court dates are and helping clients to get there on time. “It’s a very encouraging atmosphere, conversational and less formal than city court,” Adkins says of the homeless court.
Yungman had a winding path to his current job. He was a police officer in New Orleans before leaving the force to study social work at Tulane University, becoming a social worker in 1981. “I was more interested in social justice than criminal justice,” he said. In 1999, Yungman began working at One80 Place, where he realized a lot of the shelter residents needed help with legal problems. In 2007, he got a law degree and was hired by One80 Place to coordinate on-site legal services with the help of a grant. He started by handling divorces — which also can lead to homelessness because of potential loss of income or a home, although he says he handles less of those cases now.
Yungman says he’s handled about 4,000 cases for the shelter since 2007. He says the work at the homeless shelter is a combination of legal and social work, and what’s needed is “holistic advocacy” to handle the myriad problems people face when experiencing homelessness. “They don’t just have a legal problem, if we just focus on legal problems we’re not going to be totally beneficial,” he says.
The legal team is part of a “housing first” model that the shelter uses. Together with a team of caseworkers, they are focused on rapidly rehousing residents. “We believe the only solution to homelessness is housing, plain and simple,” says Adkins. Caseworkers give clients at least a year of case management after they’ve been housed to make sure they’re in a place suitable for habitation. “You don’t just house someone and say you’re done,” Adkins says.
The legal team also works, along with Charleston’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, to prevent people going to jail for non-payment of fines. For low-income people, especially people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, a lack of funds can lead to a spiral of fees and fines and potential jail time. According to a Human Rights Watch report, this is because for decades, states that were unable to balance their budgets and failed to pass taxes to bring in revenue instead passed the costs off to poor people in the form of fines.
In many cases, street homelessness itself has been made illegal, further cementing the need for homeless legal advocacy. In the past few weeks, LA County passed an ordinance making it illegal to sleep, sit or block public sidewalks, parks and other public spaces, despite a 9th Circuit court ruling that held that cities can’t make it a crime to sleep on the streets when no alternate shelter is available. The UN Human Rights Council found that the U.S. criminalization of poverty “raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
While legal help is important for Charleston’s homeless residents, it doesn’t resolve perhaps the largest underlying problem, a shortage of affordable housing. Adkins says this is their greatest challenge at One80 Place. Many people in Charleston use Section 8, which are federal housing vouchers. But the process of getting the vouchers can be long and multi-layered, Adkins says. If they get approved, clients may still face illegal discrimination from landlords as they try to get rehoused. And if they finally make it off a housing list and get a call for an affordable room, they may miss the call.
“It’s hard to be there when that call comes that says we’ve got a place for you,” Adkins says, which is why having an advocate helps.
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.