VOLS Testimony on Veteran Homelessness in New York City, by Jess Penkoff

November 13, 2019

Testimony to New York City Human Resources Administration' Annual Hearing re: Office of Civil Justice’s Programs to Provide Universal Access to Civil Legal Services for Tenants Facing Eviction

by Jess Penkoff, VOLS Staff Attorney, Elderly Project/ Veterans Initiative
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019, at 6:00 pm



VOLS was established in 1984 in response to federal cuts in legal services funding. At that time the City’s largest and most respected law firms teamed up with the New York City Bar Association to establish VOLS, whose purpose was to leverage private attorneys to provide free legal services to low income New Yorkers hoping to fill some of the gap left by the cuts in federal funding. We are now 35 years into our existence and VOLS runs five projects including a Microenterprise Project focused on providing legal services to small businesses; Incarcerated Mothers Law Project where we provide family law assistance to incarcerated women; our Immigration Project which assists undocumented minors seeking legal status; our Children’s Project which teams up law firms with schools and medical providers in communities of need; and our Elderly Project and Veterans Initiative, which I am a part of, and through which we serve elderly Veterans in New York City.



Our Elderly Project and Veterans Initiative conducts regular free legal clinics in senior centers around the City; we provide legal support to community based organizations serving low income senior veterans; we provide training to community based organizations and to the public regarding proper end of life planning; we publish An Advocate’s Guide to SCRIE and A Guide to Burial Assistance and Funeral Planning for New Yorkers in Need; and we access the pro bono services of the private bar by training, supervising and pairing up volunteer lawyers with low income seniors and senior veterans seeking wills, other advance directives and provide representation in housing matters. We are also proud to participate in the New York City Veterans Law Working Group, a group of legal service providers who serve the City’s low income veterans, active duty service members and their families facing a variety of legal issues.


We thank the Office of Civil Justice for holding this important annual hearing on the progress and impact of Universal Access. November is the month we reflect on those who served our nation, and yesterday we celebrated Veterans Day. As attorneys serving low income elderly veterans we see every day the legal issues they face, including and especially those involving housing and eviction. As has been widely reported, veterans make up a disproportionate percentage of the nation’s homeless population and many of these homeless veterans suffer from mental health conditions related to their military service. Thanks to federal programs like HUDVASH Section 8 and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), as well as local efforts, in December 2015, New York City became the largest city in the country to be certified by the federal government for having "ended" chronic homelessness. But New York City has not yet achieved "functional zero" - a designation wherein all new homeless veterans are rehoused within 90 days of entering the homeless system. New York does not want to experience a backslide and should continue to strive to achieve "functional zero" veteran homelessness.


When we talk about reducing homelessness generally we also need to be asking what we are doing specifically for veterans as part of that effort. The overall statistics about the impact of Universal Access on eviction rates in New York City are positive and impressive – what is missing from these statistics is any measure of how Universal Access has impacted veterans and veteran homelessness.


As an attorney who practiced eviction defense for low income tenants in Brooklyn for years, I was surprised to recently learn that Universal Access providers can apply for waivers on a case by case basis to be able to represent a veteran that does not reside in one of the covered zip codes or that has income above 200% of the federal poverty line. Let me say that again for the Universal Access provider attorneys and advocates in the room – you can ask HRA for a waiver to allow you to represent a veteran who may not otherwise qualify.


These waivers are an essential tool in the effort to end veteran homelessness. Without these waivers, disabled veterans may find themselves facing eviction without counsel. Veterans who are considered totally and permanently disabled due to injuries sustained in service receive benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in excess of 200% of the federal poverty level and therefore are disqualified from receiving counsel under the Universal Access program. These are the veterans who sacrificed the most in service to the nation and the guidelines for Universal Access deny them access to the program, unless their attorneys know that they can apply for a waiver. We must ask ourselves whether or not those waivers are being sought, why if not, or whether they are being granted, and why if not.


What is HRA doing to educate legal service providers about seeking exceptions? Does HRA screen for military service before denying someone a referral under Universal Access because they are outside of the zip codes or have too much income? How, when, and where does an attorney from a legal service provider seek an exception to represent a veteran? How many veterans have been covered by Universal Access? How many waivers have been sought? How many waivers have been granted? Why have certain waiver requests been denied, and does HRA refer these individuals to providers who have other funding to represent veterans?


More broadly, we need to know how Universal Access has impacted veterans. How many Veterans have stayed in their homes due to Universal Access? Has the number of eviction proceedings filed against veterans decreased? How many veterans were actually evicted in the last year or the year before?


We laud the achievements of the advocates working within the Universal Access program, and encourage the City to take the above questions into account in the continued rollout of Universal Access so that our City can fulfill its goal of ending veteran homelessness and achieving functional zero on a sustained basis. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify, and Happy Veterans Day. 


Click here to download the testimony (PDF).