Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) - Legal Services to Help Break the Cycle of Poverty and Homelessness in Philadelphia
HAP was created to address the unmet legal needs of Philadelphia's homeless population by holding free legal clinics in the places where people experiencing homelessness live and eat. HAP has provided free civil legal services to over 40,000 homeless individuals and families.The generosity of our supporters has enabled HAP to continue to expand its outreach and to enhance its services to the homeless.
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Dear Friend,
Twenty-five years ago, in December 1990, the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) opened its first legal clinic. HAP was created to address the unmet legal needs of Philadelphia’s homeless population by holding free legal clinics in the places where people experiencing homelessness live and eat. Over this 25-year period, HAP and its corps of dedicated volunteers have provided free civil legal services to over 40,000 unduplicated homeless individuals and families. The generosity of our supporters has enabled HAP to continue to expand its outreach and to enhance its services to the homeless community.

The suffering of homeless individuals goes beyond the trauma of living on the streets or in shelter. Many homeless individuals feel a sense of powerlessness and a loss of dignity. This is especially true for homeless veterans who may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric problems. In 2001, HAP created the Veterans Project to serve the unique legal needs of homeless veterans.

TY is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. During the years of 1972 and 1973, TY served in and around the country of Vietnam, which was an active combat zone at the time. His Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) were Rifleman and Fire Team Leader. To this day, some forty years later, he still remembers patrolling the jungles of Vietnam, his gun ready to be fired, as he and a small group of fellow Marines sought out enemy combatants, who he was told were hiding among civilians in small Vietnamese villages. These images still startle and wake TY during the night. He sits up sweating, reliving the jungle patrols. He keeps a knife under his mattress for protection. During the day, with the exception of his medical appointments, he keeps to himself in a small apartment. Both his VA psychiatrist and therapist have diagnosed him with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

After returning from Vietnam, TY never considered applying for VA benefits. As was often the case at the time, he didn’t even know he was suffering from the classic signs of PTSD. In the 1990s, however, he was encouraged to apply for benefits, as his mental illness rendered him unable to continue working as a truck driver. First, he sought treatment at the VA Medical Center. Second, his doctors immediately diagnosed him with severe PTSD. Then he applied for compensation, but his claim was denied. The VA concluded that TY never set foot in Vietnam, that he only served aboard naval ships off the coast of the country, and that his memories about the patrols in the jungle were untrue. When HAP Staff Attorney Michael Taub first met TY, he had given up hope on ever receiving VA compensation. Michael obtained TY’s VA medical records and recommended that he apply again. TY’s diagnosis was so clear, his symptoms so persistent, and his descriptions of Vietnam so real, that Michael knew TY could prevail with a new filing.

Under VA law, a veteran must prove service in a combat zone for certain favorable presumptions to apply. Service on a naval ship off the coast of Vietnam is not considered a combat zone, and the VA focused only on records in TY’s service file indicating that he was aboard the USS Ogden during the war. His file mentioned nothing specifically about disembarking onto land. A closer look at TY’s service records revealed several overlooked but critical facts. First, one of his personnel records indicated that he received “combat pay” during the same time his records revealed he was serving in Southeast Asia. Second, his records clearly identified his overseas duty assignments as rifleman and fire team leader, which are both land-based, infantry specialties. Finally, his records made reference to his being assigned to a BLT, or Battalion Landing Team, which is the ground combat element of a Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Despite this evidence, the VA refused to acknowledge TY’s presence on-land in Vietnam. Michael requested TY’s Command Chronologies and ship Deck Logs for TY’s BLT and the Ogden. When these arrived, Michael realized that TY’s unit left the Ogden and transferred to the USS Monticello for special operations in late 1972 and early 1973. Michael then obtained Deck Logs for the Monticello and also found a VA Vietnam ship registry that not only acknowledged the Monticello’s special operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, but also that the Ogden itself conducted special operations in Tonkin and travelled on Vietnam’s inland waterways, not just off the coast.

Michael also discovered online the stories of other veterans who served as fire team leaders in Vietnam and whose descriptions were nearly identical to the patrols TY commanded during the war.

After many unsuccessful efforts, in 2014, TY was finally scheduled for a hearing before a judge from the Board of Veterans Appeals. At the hearing, Michael used all of TY’s service records to painstakingly track his day-to-day movements in and around Vietnam. To TY and the judge, the hearing took on the feel of a war only recently fought. TY’s vivid testimony about life in Vietnam added to this feeling: the unrelenting heat, humidity, and mosquitoes; the small boats that secretly ferried him and his team ashore for late night reconnaissance missions; the bullets that buzzed by his head, nearly taking his life; and the bodies of others – enemies and friends – who didn’t survive the missions.

n January 2015, the judge issued his decision. He recognized TY’s service in the country of Vietnam, and granted him Veterans compensation for his PTSD. In the opinion, the judge cited the timeline presented at the hearing and other documentary evidence from TY’s service records as proof that his service wasn’t limited to the relative safety of sailing off the coast of Vietnam. He agreed that TY put his life at risk walking patrols in Vietnam, his boots on the ground and his gun in hand, for the country that had refused to recognize his sacrifice for so long.

The exact amount of TY’s award has not been determined. Since his case was pending for so long, it is expected that he will receive a sizeable lump sum payment that is likely close to $200,000. He will also receive monthly benefits moving forward in the range of $2,900/month. HAP is now in the process of providing TY with a lawyer to draw up a will and a pro bono financial counselor help him save and manage his money.

As we mark HAP’s 25th Anniversary milestone, Philadelphia’s homeless population continues the daily struggle towards self-sufficiency and independence. Please join us this holiday season to help break the cycle of homelessness by taking a moment to make a gift to support the Homeless Advocacy Project. And, please consider increasing your gift this year, as HAP’s clients continue to be so in need of your support.

With best wishes and our utmost gratitude,
Marsha Cohen
Marsha I. Cohen, Esq.
Executive Director

 

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