The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center’s (CVLC) vision is for all military veterans in Connecticut to live with adequate means, affordable healthcare, safe and secure housing, and peace of mind. To this end, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center works in medical-legal partnership at Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities to help low-income veterans overcome legal barriers to housing, healthcare, and income. By providing free legal services to low-income veterans, CVLC helps veterans recovering from homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse rebuild their lives.
Connecticut Veterans Legal Center arose from the volunteer work of Howard Udell, who first came to the VA Connecticut’s Errera Community Care Center in 2007. The Errera Center is a nationally-recognized VA facility providing mental health, substance abuse, housing and employment assistance to indigent veterans. When, over morning coffee, the veterans learned Howard was an attorney, they started asking him for advice about their legal troubles. Soon a line would form by the elevator on days when Howard was coming in. Howard started taking cases on his own and before long was assisting thirty veterans. He was a walking needs assessment for the legal barriers veterans face in rebuilding their lives.
Howard joined with attorney Margaret Middleton to incorporate CVLC in 2009 with seed funding from the Yale Initiative for Public Interest Law. New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA), a local legal aid agency, served as the fiscal sponsor for the project. The mission of the organization was, and remains, to help veterans recovering from homelessness and serious mental illness overcome legal barriers to housing, healthcare and income. Although the co-founders were driven by the immediate needs of the local veterans they met at the Errera Center, they proved an unwitting vanguard in a national movement to serve the legal needs of veterans.
CVLC serves veterans who are confronting a wide variety of legal issues, including family, housing, criminal record expungement, bankruptcy, consumer debt, securing Social Security and VA benefits, employment, estate planning and military discharge upgrades. CVLC is the only organization in Connecticut to overcome transportation and communication obstacles for the state’s most vulnerable veterans by meeting them where they are, on-site at VA mental health facilities. To date, CVLC has helped over 2,000 veterans, over half of whom were homeless or previously homeless, reintegrate into civilian life by providing legal aid. In addition to providing free legal services to veterans, CVLC also serves as a legal information and referral resource for social service agencies, legislative bodies and attorneys serving veterans across the state of Connecticut and the United States.
It’s hard not to grin during a visit to CVLC at the VA’s Errera Community Care Center. Here’s an idea of what you’ll see and an overview of what we are doing there.
You’ll emerge from the elevator into a big sunny room, with lovely old wood floors and twenty-foot ceilings. Light floods in from a skylight above and a wall of ten foot high windows in front of you. A boombox is playing and veterans are sitting at long lunch tables chatting over coffee or reading the paper.
These veterans face adversity and come here to learn to confront it together. Some have fought in wars and bear invisible injuries that make the simple routines of daily living difficult. Others are reuniting with their families after decades of substance abuse. Some are homeless for the first time after losing their jobs. All are vulnerable and all have shown up.
Past the welcome desk on your left there is a tiny closet of a room, about half the size of a dorm room, with a couple of desks, a filing cabinet and an over-whelmed coat rack. This is the office of Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, the first organization in the country to bring legal help to veterans all day, everyday at the place they go to rebuild their lives. A housing specialist drops by with a veteran who got a notice to leave his apartment, a veteran stops in because he heard that his friend got a pardon with our help, and a veteran calls because she got a piece of mail from the VA she doesn’t understand.
These veterans talk with CVLC’s paralegal or veterans liaison, who connects them with one of four attorneys on staff. These attorneys might help them understand their rights or their mail, they might write a letter to a landlord who kept the veterans’ security deposit, or help them fill out a financial affidavit to modify their child support. These attorneys might connect the veteran with one of the hundreds of volunteer attorneys from across Connecticut who have agreed to help by donating their time and expertise.
In addition to feeling good, CVLC’s work does good; we know that because we measure our impact so we can focus our limited resources on the most successful interventions. In the past year, 85% of CVLC full representation landlord-tenant cases increased housing stability for veterans. Also in Fiscal Year 15-16, CVLC closed VA benefits cases for 17 veterans that will bring in $2.2 million in the next ten years. CVLC attorneys improved access to free high-quality lifetime healthcare from the VA for 20 veterans.
CVLC's Board provides strategic direction, financial oversight, resource development and guidance to the Executive Director that are critical to CVLC's success. Any potential new Board member
should meet at least one of these priorities:
any potential Board member must be able to fulfill the established
responsibilities and expectations. Any person who joins the Board of
Directors agrees to:
4. Be an informed participant, which includes:
Please contact CVLC's Executive Director Margaret Middleton at email@example.com for more information.
CVLC's Removing Legal Barriers program provides free legal assistance to veterans in recovery from homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse to help them overcome legal barriers to housing, healthcare and income. Since 2009, CVLC has worked in medical-legal partnership with the VA Errera Community Care Center (ECCC) in West Haven. CVLC’s medical-legal partnership with the ECCC integrates legal assistance into the network of services provided to veterans by the VA and other agencies. While the VA Connecticut Healthcare System provides quality medical, mental health and rehabilitation services to eligible veterans, it provides no legal assistance. CVLC is the only organization in Connecticut that targets the legal needs of indigent veterans and the only organization in the state that provides legal assistance with veteran- specific issues, including VA benefits and discharge upgrades.
Last year (Fiscal Year 2016), CVLC helped resolve 567 legal issues that improved veterans’ housing stability. For each veteran, these outcomes can be life changing. For example, CVLC connected a Vietnam combat veteran facing eviction with a pro bono attorney. Severe PTSD left the veteran few social supports and panicked about being kicked out of his home. The volunteer called the fire marshal and confirmed the veteran’s apartment violated code as it lacked sufficient exits. Because of the violation, the landlord paid for the veteran’s lodging while he found new housing working with a VA housing specialist. The attorney also helped the veteran successfully get a quick VA disability compensation determination. The successful claim increased the veteran’s monthly income by $2,800 giving him enough to afford a new apartment. The veteran told CVLC ““if [the volunteer lawyer] was my own brother, he couldn’t have done better for me…without him I would’ve been lost.”
The burdens of military service are particularly heavy for veterans with a “less than honorable” discharge from the military. Each year, the Department of Defense erroneously denies service members an “honorable” discharge, often because of behaviors symptomatic of PTSD. These veterans are more likely to commit suicide, become homeless, and to be involved in the criminal justice system as other veterans. Racial minorities, sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ veterans, and service members with mental health disabilities are disproportionately less than honorably discharged. Such “bad paper discharges” can make veterans ineligible for VA educational, medical, or disability benefits and make it harder for them to secure civilian jobs. Some of the most injured veterans in New Haven are denied care right now because of wartime mental injuries. CVLC's Military Records Correction Program is working to fix this injustice.
Records corrections cases can take years to resolve, so CVLC’s immediate
success will be in continuing to build a robust program. In the short-term, this program
will continue train volunteers to start taking cases to assist veterans seeking records
corrections. To date, around 100 Connecticut attorneys at approximately 35 law
firms and corporations have been trained; in addition, attorneys in New York
and New Mexico have had access to CVLC training and support. Short-term success
includes the number of clients screened, the number of clients whose cases are
being developed through records requests, the number of clients who have been assigned
a volunteer attorney and the number of clients who have filed a records request
with their volunteer attorney.
Outcomes of the Records Corrections program are tracked in CVLC’s
case management database. In addition to the data and outcomes CVLC tracks for
every matter, for these particularly complex matters CVLC staff track what
records have been requested, reviewed and by whom. To monitor the program’s
development, CVLC staff track how many attorneys have been trained, how many
have taken pro bono cases and how many have filed applications with their
clients. For more information about the CVLC’s custom-programmed evaluation
system and outcome-oriented management please read about CVLC’s core legal aid
Over the past 8 years CVLC has provided legal assistance to almost 2,000 veterans. Many of those veterans have received life-changing help from this program.For example, a Vietnam veteran was referred to CVLC by a VA homeless outreach worker. The veteran was ineligible for VA care because of an Other Than Honorable discharge despite four other honorable terms of prior service. CVLC successfully appealed the veteran’s eligibility for VA care. Not only does he receive a lifetime of quality medical care, he is now living in permanent supportive housing funded by VA and is no longer homeless.
Young men and women who serve their country at war face serious challenges when they get home.
Cindy Johnson is a Staff Attorney at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. Prior to pursuing her dream to become a public interest lawyer, she had a 25 year career in Software Development. She is a graduate of University of Connecticut School of Law.
She is admitted to the Connecticut State Bar and is a member of the Connecticut Bar Association and the New Haven County Bar Association.
A graduate of George Washington University National Law Center, Christy has served as a leader in the public interest law community in New Haven and nationally. Her previous experience includes working as Director of George Washington University’s Consumer HELP Bankruptcy Clinic, the Managing Attorney at Valley Legal Assistance, and the Deputy Director at New Haven Legal Assistance.
Christy has also worked as a Visiting Clinical Instructor at Yale Law School and served on the Board of Directors at the Columbus House and Washington Council of Lawyers.
CVLC's strong management and governance capacities create the foundation that allows CVLC to innovate relentlessly:
In all of these ways CVLC represents the advanced guard in serving the needs of veterans, which is why legal services programs, funders, state bar associations and VA employees from at least a dozen states and the District of Columbia have sought CVLC’s expertise and advice in designing programs to serve the legal needs of veterans.
CVLC has a robust, high performing management and governance team. According to the Community Foundation’s “Guiding Principles for Nonprofits: Leadership, Evaluation and Sound Management,” CVLC’s board functions highly on several core management objectives.
First, the board establishes the mission and sets the organizational direction to achieve it. CVLC completed its first three year strategic plan in 2016. That plan focused on building CVLC’s organizational infrastructure including building a strong and engaged board of directors, a robust development effort and effective marketing and communications. Since that time, CVLC has built a fundraising board including key members from CVLC fundraising partners Sikorsky aircraft and Point72 asset management, which collectively helped to generate half of CVLC’s budget last year. In 2016 the Board completed CVLC's second three year strategic plan. This plan sets an ambitious course to increase CVLC’s work reforming the systems New Haven area veterans rely on through impact litigation, legislative work and coalition building.
Indirect Public Support HelpIndirect public support represents revenue received through solicitation campaigns. This includes funding United Way and other federated fundraising organizations, but does not include donor designated contributions.
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CVLC’s financial health has proven resilient despite two major changes in funding over the past 9 years. First, following the death of CVLC co-founder Howard Udell, the CVLC lost the sponsorship of several law multinational law firms that had had strong personal connections to Howard. Second, the CVLC grew to accommodate a $360,000 two-year non-renewable grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, and had to add that much in new sources over two years in order to maintain the growth. Due to the CVLC’s conservative fiscal management and diversification of its funding sources, CVLC not only survived both of these changes but raised a surplus in all but the current fiscal year, and set aside a six month cash operating reserve.
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