What’s in the news: California is suffering from a drought.
What doesn’t make the news: too many veterans are living in legal services deserts.
By Renee Schomp, OneJustice Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow
At this point, a lot of us have probably heard that many of the people that the United States has sent off to war return to a life back home that is rife with poverty and struggle. And this is no abstract concept: last May, a federal appeals court in San Francisco found that 18 veterans commit suicide every single day. I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to information like this – after I recover from my heartbreak – is to ask, “Where are these people right here in my home state?” and “What can we do to make their lives even a little bit better?”
The Justice Bus Project reaches low-income veterans in rural counties across California. The veterans pictured here were served at the Hoopa Valley Tribe community in Del Norte County.
Bear with me on these numbers and you’ll be amazed. In California, 30.7% of veterans are disabled, but only 15.7% receive the compensation and pension the Veterans Administration (“VA”) can provide them.
This means that half of the disabled veterans in the state of California do not receive veterans’ benefits!
So where are the veterans who need support – and where are the lawyers who can provide it? I’ll wager a bet that when most of you think about low-income California veterans who probably need legal support, you think of folks living in places like Skid Row or the Tenderloin. And you would not be far off: the highest number of California veterans living in poverty are in fact concentrated in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
But the truth is, there are also many lawyers – both corporate and non-profit alike – who live in these urban meccas. So while the legal needs of low-income urban veterans are high, there are a number of lawyers nearby who can help them. But the many veterans who live in rural towns and the countryside throughout the state of California lack even the most basic access to lawyers who can help them apply for, say, those vital VA benefits.
I imagine you’ve heard of a “food desert.” Well, California’s rural veterans live in legal services deserts. (If not literal, dust-on-your-boots deserts.) There are too few lawyers in rural parts of California to help the many low-income people who live there.
California’s rural veterans are living in legal services deserts, and they are thirsty for legal support!
Rural veterans are less educated, have higher rates of disability, and are older than their urban veteran counterparts. Veteran residents number, at minimum, 26,000, in California’s designated rural communities. That is a lot of American heroes who probably could use some basic legal services. We’ve crunched the numbers, and here are some of the legal services deserts where they live:
Chart: Rural Counties with Lowest Ratio of Attorneys to Low-income Veterans
So, how do we get lawyers to California’s legal services deserts? OneJustice’s Justice Bus Project focuses on narrowing the justice gap that exists where California’s rural, low-income communities confront a dearth of legal services providers. We have found that tons of law students and lawyers who work at firms and corporations in California want to partner with rural legal services nonprofits to work, pro bono, to serve those in need. So we literally put pro bono lawyers and law students from California’s urban centers on a bus and drive them out to rural areas of California to provide free legal services to underserved individuals.
And that is what we’re doing now that we’ve realized that there are so many veterans who need help with their veterans’ benefits claims, among other legal issues. It’s not a quick fix – and there are plenty of other obstacles just waiting to confront our veterans – but ultimately it’s a simple solution to what is, really, a simple problem.
So we’re hitting the road to reach those veterans. We’ll see you on the freeway!
Renee Schomp is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow and a proud participant in Equal Justice Work’s national Veterans Legal Corps. At OneJustice, she is responsible for leading Justice Bus Trips throughout Northern California, working to bring attorney and law student volunteers from urban areas to serve isolated communities.
This blog is cross-posted on the Equal Justice Works Blog.