Texas has the second-highest population of veterans in the country––nearly 1.5 million––and many of these veterans are poor or homeless. While groups around the state are tirelessly working on veterans’ behalf, there is always more to be done to ensure their civil legal needs, like eviction and the inability to access medical care, are being met as they reintegrate back into civilian life––especially during a global pandemic.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 5.2 million Texans, including a significant number of veterans, qualified for civil legal aid. This number is only expected to increase as we continue to see the devastating financial and economic fallout, unemployment and uncertainty caused by COVID-19. Veterans aren’t exempt from this; they are an already vulnerable group made even more vulnerable by the coronavirus pandemic.
Legal issues amount for five of the top 10 unmet needs of homeless veterans, according to the annual survey of homeless and formerly homeless veterans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Legal aid programs, local bar associations, law schools and pro bono lawyers all help provide civil legal aid for veterans, but they struggle to meet demand without adequate funding. Veteran legal issues––including credit problems, accessing benefits, landlord/tenant disputes, restoring a driver’s license and denial of critical medical care––are essential legal issues that must be handled in order to keep Texas veterans from falling through the cracks.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF), created in 1984 to provide funding for civil legal aid in Texas, is committed to the vision that all Texans will have equal access to justice, regardless of income. Last year, The Foundation awarded more than $6 million in two-year grants to 13 Texas legal aid providers to provide civil legal services to low-income veterans. This year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, grantees of the TAJF, the Texas Veterans Legal Aid Coalition pivoted from coordinating in-person veteran legal aid clinics to virtual clinics across the state, along with creating a series of videos about benefits available for veterans.
In an additional show of support for Texas veterans, TAJF established the Joe Jamail Endowment for Veteran Legal Services in 2017 to ensure veterans have fair and equitable access to the justice system. Earlier this year, the Endowment reached a milestone $1 million in donations, which will be used to provide legal representation to veterans throughout the state.
This year is also the 10th anniversary of Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, a collaborative effort between local bar associations and legal aid organizations that specifically addresses the need for pro bono civil legal assistance for veterans and their families.
Each year, the week of Veterans Day is designated as Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week (TVLAW). This year from Nov. 9-13, local bar associations, legal aid organizations and law schools across Texas are hosting free, virtual legal clinics to serve veterans with the support and civil legal guidance they need. To find a clinic in your area, visit texaslawhelp.org/tvlaw-2020 or call the statewide hotline at 1-800-622-2520.
Texas veterans are at an increased risk of displacement, unemployment, requiring medical care and other problems arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s on us to make sure they are adequately being taken care of. We must ensure they can access the resources and services they need to reintegrate back into civilian life and thrive even despite the current public health crisis. Legal aid services can make a real difference in the lives of veterans who qualify, and support for these services ensures that veterans aren’t left behind as the state works toward COVID-19 recovery.
By Nathan L. Hecht and Terry Tottenham
Hecht is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas and is a U.S. Navy veteran. Terry Tottenham is on the board of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, a U.S. Marine Corp veteran, and served as the president of the State Bar of Texas from 2010-2011, during which time he founded Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans.