When the Capital Area AIDS Legal Project (CAALP) was first founded by Kirk Rice, it presented a novel solution to an invisible problem. People living with and affected by HIV finally had a resource to turn to for legal advice, representation, and referrals. Over the years, AIDS Services of Austin built up a pool of over 185 volunteer lawyers from around Austin.

At the same time, another organization, Volunteer Legal Services (VLS) was offering legal assistance in Austin to low-income people. While ASA offered something different and more tailored to a particular population, it became hard to stay organized and keep up with increasing demand. ASA soon started referring clients to VLS, and last year, their partnership shifted to a new model.

Now, ASA contracts with VLS to run the CAALP program. A VLS staff members (including attorneys or case placement coordinators) work at the ASA offices during a portion of each weekday to provide services, working with intake to confirm clients meet eligibility guidelines. The in-house attorneys can then either help the client themselves or refer cases to volunteer attorneys.

“Sometimes the hardest part of the job,” says Sue Campion, ASA’s Chief Programs Officer, “can be follow up, especially for clients focused on health issues. Staying organized can be challenging.” In order to make sure clients receive the help they need, VLS staff often work with case managers to stay on top of emerging issues, not just with client but with the community. For instance, Austin’s housing issues have become increasingly complex as property rates near the city increase. For those clients receiving housing assistance, it may be necessary to find accommodations outside the city, which can be daunting for someone who has lived in Austin their whole life.

Not only do VLS staff understand the economic, medical, and emotional issues people living with HIV may be facing, they also know how important it is for people to stay educated. They offer regular clinics for people affected by HIV, including family members or loved ones of people living with HIV.

In order to receive services, clients must be living within 187.5% of the federal poverty level. However, they do not need to be case managed at ASA. In fact, referrals come to VLS not only through ASA, but through the Wright House Wellness Center, Project Transitions, CommUnityCare’s David Powell Clinic, and Waterloo Counseling Center.

The process starts with an intake form. Many of the people inquiring may never need to engage the services of a lawyer. Hundreds of clients are able to get their questions answered with free legal advice. When clients may need more than just advice, the VLS staff will determine whether they have legal recourse or not.

For staff attorney Jonathan Buck, one challenge is getting together the large amount of paperwork needed. “With clinics, oftentimes the case isn’t ready to be referred to an attorney. But if we think a case is likely to make it through, we will write a memo to send to our volunteer base to get them interested in helping.”

“A lot of the cases we help with,” Jonathan explains, “are the most basic things: getting social security benefits or disability income, keeping clients housed.” Many clients living with HIV may have other issues that require them to get certain forms in order. “The face of HIV and AIDS is so different than it used to be. There is this additional layer of having all these health problems in addition to HIV. And some people may not be on the best terms with their family because of the stigma associated with HIV. If they don’t have the right paperwork in place [before a crisis], it won’t be their partner making decisions for them.”

Jonathan came to CAALP after practicing law for 10 years. During those years, he volunteered whenever he could. “Those were the cases I got the most out of. I got to help someone that really needed the help and appreciated the help.” For many young attorneys, working at a law firm might mean never visiting a courtroom and or spending years on a case that gets settled out of court. Volunteering provides an opportunity for them to present cases in front of a judge and see happy clients as cases close successfully.

Jonathan also enjoys the challenge of helping people and connecting with them, getting them to remember him and understand the importance of coming back to follow up. “You have to communicate. You have to be empathetic to get them to put their guard down.”

While the job might seem stressful to some, Jonathan insists it is not. “It’s fun! It’s nice to know that I can sit for 10 to 20 minutes with someone and make a big impact in their lives. Every day I have the chance to help people with the knowledge and skills that I have.”

If you think you qualify for VLS’s services and are in need of legal help, contact them at 512-406-6173 or caalp@asaustin.org.