Helping the homeless, one birth certificate at a time


Reporter's Notebook | Following Penn Law Advocates for the Homeless as they do pro bono work for impoverished locals




To passersby, St. Agatha-St. James Church may seem like nothing more than a quiet sanctuary at the corner of 38th and Chestnut streets.

But if you were to venture into the multi-purpose room on any given Wednesday evening, you would see, as I did one night, a place bustling with activity: volunteers doling out hot meals, friends exchanging stories and a team of legal aid workers diligently helping clients solve their legal issues.

What is noteworthy about these legal aid workers, however, is that none of them are officially lawyers — at least, not yet.

In fact, they are Penn Law students who collectively form Penn Law Advocates for the Homeless, also known as PLAH, a group that meets at St. Agatha-St. James every week to offer its pro bono services to the dozens of homeless Philadelphians who find refuge there between 6 and 7 p.m. each Wednesday.

Not long after the weekly announcements and opening blessing were said, clients starting making their way to PLAH’s row of tables and chairs. One man, who must remain anonymous due to PLAH’s confidentiality policies, was seeking to obtain a copy of his birth certificate.

“For a lot of people who become homeless, life is dangerous and they may lose track of their identification documents,” third-year law student and PLAH Director Sherri Golkow said. “Since you need identification to get the identification necessary to apply for things like a driver’s license, housing and other benefits, it becomes a horrible loop, but attorneys can help to break that cycle.”

As Golkow retrieved a thick packet of paperwork from a folder, the client expressed his dismay. “We have to fill out every single one of those?” he asked, eyes widening. Golkow assured him the process wouldn’t take long.

Surprisingly, the task was indeed quite simple; the only thing the client really had to do was provide personal information such as his date and place of birth, parents’ names, income and citizenship status. In less than 10 minutes, he had completed the once daunting pile of forms and was well on his way to receiving a crucial piece of identification.

Though a couple of repeat clients stopped by PLAH’s station, as second-year law student and PLAH Clinic Coordinator Lauren Henderson pointed out, short-term cases like the one I sat in on are the most common.

But releasing copies of personal records is just one among a range of services that PLAH members can perform under the guidance of their supervising attorney, 1990 College and 1994 Penn Law graduate Michael LiPuma.

“The students have really grown [PLAH] so that they are able to help a lot more clients with different issues,” said LiPuma, who was one of PLAH’s founding members in the early 1990s.

LiPuma currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Homeless Advocacy Project, a legal aid organization that partners with soup kitchens, shelters and clinics like PLAH to ensure that free legal help is easily accessible to homeless individuals throughout Philadelphia.

Both LiPuma and HAP attorney Morgen Black-Smith, a 2006 Penn Law graduate and former PLAH director, hold monthly training sessions to educate PLAH members about some of the areas of practice that are particularly relevant to working with the homeless and underprivileged. The skills they teach include helping clients with their taxes, resolving landlord-tenant disputes and applying for government benefits such as food stamps and social security.

Black-Smith emphasized that the training PLAH members receive goes beyond just covering the basics of certain legal procedures.

For instance, the PLAH representatives need to know “how to talk to people who, by definition, are in crisis” and be aware of any “special circumstances” that could indicate that a client needs help in more than one area, Black-Smith explained.

As the night came to a close, it became clear to me that the PLAH clinic allows law students to gain valuable hands-on knowledge that they will surely be able to carry with them in their careers.

“Being in PLAH is one of the earliest experiences with direct client contact you can have,” Henderson said. “It’s nice to get out of the law school bubble and get a taste of what a career could be like.”

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