Homelessness often is just one part of a downward spiral in which people lose not just their sense of worth but also benefits and opportunities that rightly should be theirs.
Sleeping on a park bench can lead to an arrest, which creates a virtual red flag that stops employers from hiring you. Not having all the necessary paperwork or knowing where to submit it can mean the disqualification of veterans’ or medical benefits. Each indignation piles atop a previous slight.
The Homeless Persons Representation Project, located in Rockville and Baltimore, is working to fix that.
Its paid and volunteer lawyers go to court and handle legal matters to keep people in their own homes or help them obtain housing.
HPRP holds clinics at Interfaith Works women’s shelter in Rockville, Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, and Home Builders Care Assessment Center in Rockville. It offers free legal services in its community-based program, with the ambitious goal of ending homelessness.
This month, HPRP chose Carnot Evans III as its new board president. Evans, the vice president and senior counsel at Marriott International, has been with the homeless project for six years.
The choice of Evans is an example of how HPRP strives to be representative of all its clients. Evans is African-American, as is Jacqueline Brooks, board vice president. Some of the other board members have been homeless.
“The board looks like the community we serve,” said Evans, of Arlington, Virginia.
Executive director Antonia Fasanelli is proud of that fact.
In an email to the Sentinel, she noted, “Persons who identify as African-American are underrepresented on the boards of Maryland civil legal aid organizations and are underrepresented in the legal profession as a whole.”
Her organization “recognizes that homelessness disproportionally affects persons who are African-American and embraces the value that its board and staff should reflect the population is serves.”
Besides being board president, Evans volunteers as a pro bono lawyer and goes to court to have a person’s criminal record expunged. Urinating in public or sleeping in a public place are often the only criminal record a homeless person may have, but those are enough to keep him or her from getting a job, Evans said.
He meets his clients “where they are,” in a soup kitchen, a library or a shelter, he said.
“These are people, I think, who have not been treated with respect,” he said, adding he always wears a suit when he is with his clients.
Often, Evans is the first person “in a long time who is on their side. They are so happy to have someone who is on their side,” he said.
What may take him less than an hour can be life changing to someone else. He has heard back from people he helped who told him, “That small, little thing I did, just getting this off my record, has changed my life.’”
Statewide, HPRP handles almost 1,500 legal cases a year, with 150 of those in Montgomery County, Fasanelli said.
Although her program has had a presence in the County for many years, it only opened its Rockville office in April of last year.
Montgomery County has the second-highest homeless population in the state. Baltimore has the most, she said.
While the County keeps reporting a decrease in the number of homeless people here, HPRP is experiencing an increase in requests for help.
“The reality is, the need is there,” Fasanelli said.