This Southern California nonprofit provides pro bono legal assistance to veterans in need
Veterans face unique challenges after returning to civilian life. Veterans Legal Institute connects local attorneys and law students with service men and women in need.
The images are heartbreaking: veterans, who sacrificed life and limb to protect this country, sleeping under a freeway overpass, wondering where their next meal will come from, struggling to find work, and unable to get the medical care that they so desperately need.
The statistics are sobering: although less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, 11 percent of adult homeless in the United States are veterans. Worse yet, the suicide rate for veterans is nearly double the national average.
For low-income veterans in Southern California, there is hope.
Armed with law degrees, an enduring sense of patriotism, and a passion for service, attorneys at Veterans Legal Institute (VLI) are committed to lifting up veterans in need. These lawyers for warriors work tirelessly to end the scourge of veteran homelessness and veteran suicide through zealous legal advocacy. VLI’s mission is to provide access to attorneys, at zero cost to the veteran, who will fight to remove barriers to homelessness, healthcare, education, and employment.
The work that we do benefits both veterans and the community in two important ways. First, by giving low-income veterans and their families a hand up, VLI’s clients see significant improvements in their economic viability, health, and mindset. Every community is better off when its residents are happy, healthy, and productive members of society. Second, VLI’s advocacy has created a grassroots movement among service-minded and patriotic attorneys, who donate their time and talents.
VLI handles a broad spectrum of legal issues for low-income veterans and their families, including complex veteran benefit appeals, family law, landlord/tenant disputes, estate planning (particularly for older and terminally-ill veterans), elder abuse, and consumer law, among others.
Veterans apply for VLI’s services online, in person, by phone, or at a mobile legal clinic. VLI attorneys must then prioritize and triage the 2,500-plus yearly applications for legal assistance, often employing creative means to ensure that every veteran receives the care that he or she deserves. Below are a few of our services.
- Mobile Legal Clinic: Many veterans are unable to get the help they need due to physical limitations, a lack of available transportation, or mental health issues. To address this, VLI has embraced a “mobile legal clinic” model, where VLI staff attorneys, private attorneys, and law student volunteers provide onsite legal services to veteran hotspots like the VA Hospital or regional Vet Centers. VLI’s life-changing legal services complement the veteran’s ongoing medical care and are instrumental in providing the comprehensive help veterans need.
Family Law Clinic: Veterans, for a variety of reasons unique to military service, often need help with family law issues. VLI created a family law clinic where veterans are able to access an attorney once a month to discuss issues relating to divorce, child custody, child support, and alimony. VLI recruits family law attorneys from the Orange County Bar Association family law section to participate in the clinic and provide free legal services. As a result of VLI’s creative delivery of legal services, from 2017 to 2019 VLI sponsored 44 family law clinics. Through those efforts, nearly 40 volunteer attorneys provided an estimated $655,000 in free legal services to 415 clients and their families, all supervised by two VLI staff attorneys.
Woman-Only Clinic: In 2018, the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach recognized that female veterans are the fastest growing group of veterans in California and face harsh transitions to civilian life. Recent studies note that military sexual trauma is greatly under reported, and female veterans are more likely to commit suicide than civilians. VLI is uniquely situated to help these female veterans. Through its woman-only clinic, VLI provides a safe space where attorneys can help assist with their claims, give them access to healthcare, and open the door to recovery, closure, and self-sufficiency.
Other clinics: VLI also provides practice-specific clinics to help veterans with military benefits, estate planning, and bankruptcy issues.
Patriotic, service-minded attorneys and volunteers recognize that veterans face significant challenges and legal hurdles as they transition into civilian life. We appreciate the opportunity to give back to those who gave so much to us through VLI.
The numbers bear this out. In 2019 alone, in-house volunteers (attorneys, law clerks, paralegals, and admins)—not including those private attorneys who take cases on pro bono in their private capacity—provided close to 10,000 service hours per year to VLI.
VLI is proud of the over 6,000 veterans it has helped in the last five years. But until we have eradicated veteran homelessness and veteran suicide, there is still work to be done, and the mission continues. To learn more, give back, or donate, please visit www.vetslegal.org.
Co-founder of the Veterans Legal Institute
Noticing an influx of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking shelter at a local National Guard armory, Ms. Balta discovered that many issues that contributed to these veterans’ chronic homelessness were legal in nature and required the assistance of an attorney. So moved by the fact that the men and women who had served the country abroad were now struggling, she committed herself to the cause of removing “chronic” from “homelessness” and empowering veterans into self-sufficiency. This led her to be instrumental in the co-development of a veteran-based project at a local legal aid, with over 700 veterans receiving legal assistance during her three-year tenure.
Ms. Balta is a reserve JAG Officer with the California State Military Reserve, assigned to Legal Support Command where she holds the rank of Major. She is accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs and regularly lectures on legal topics affecting veterans.
Ms. Balta is a Director at Large with the Orange County Bar Association and also a Board Advisor for the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations. She is a member of the OC Veterans and Military Families Collaborative and is the Vice Chair of the Military and Veterans Health Law Advisory Board of the American Bar Association Health Section. She is also an advisor to Integrated Recovery Foundation, an organization that serves women veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma.