Nonprofit law firm receives $90,000 grant to assist veterans

  • Manuel Ramos, a former petty officer in the Navy Reserve, stands in front of his home in South Hadley, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Manuel Ramos, a former petty officer in the Navy Reserve, spreads mulch at his home in South Hadley, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. He received help from Community Legal Aid, a non-profit law firm, that will create the first veterans medical-legal partnership in the state with a $90,000 grant from United Way of Hampshire County.

For the Gazette
Published: 4/18/2019 12:09:10 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Community Legal Aid will create the first veterans medical-legal partnership, or VMLP, in the state with a $90,000 grant from United Way of Hampshire County.

Located at the Edward P. Boland Northampton VA Medical Center, the VMLP will help low-income veterans in Hampshire County navigate the legal system. Medical-legal partnerships pair lawyers with specializations in areas such as health care and homelessness with veterans who face problems that may affect their health. Issues around hunger, financial insecurity and domestic violence are among other problems lawyers will assist veterans in navigating.

“We want to catch something in the courtroom rather than in the emergency room,” said Daniel Bahls, Community Legal Aid’s lead VMLP attorney.

Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, originally hired one attorney to specialize in veterans’ needs, but soon realized that there is a larger need for providing veterans with legal assistance.

Low-income veterans often lack the resources and knowledge necessary to fight for themselves in a legal setting, Bahls said. In the VMLP, lawyers specially-chosen for each veteran will assist with maintaining a veteran’s benefits, securing discharge upgrades and defending against eviction and foreclosure.

Manuel Ramos, a former petty officer in the Navy Reserve, avoided foreclosure with the help of Community Legal Aid. After 19 years of service, Ramos sustained injuries that left him permanently disabled after serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Bahls, a legal aid attorney for 10 years, took up the case.

“One of the goals of this is to try to identify legal needs before they become medical needs,” said Bahls. “If we can prevent a veteran from becoming homeless, we can prevent all kinds of medical problems and medical complications that come from not being sheltered. It is much cheaper to treat as a legal issue, so if we can use a little bit of time with an attorney, we can save a lot of time at the hospital.”

After a medical separation from the military, Ramos struggled to pay his mortgage on his home in South Hadley. The lenders began the foreclosure process on his house, although his upcoming VA disability compensation would be enough to cover the mortgage payment. Because the paperwork took months to process and complete, Ramos was rendered helpless as his disability prevented him from working.

A specialist in foreclosure law, Bahls intervened and found flaws in the lender’s foreclosure process. After successfully advocating for the loan servicer to pause the foreclosure process until a determination was made on the disability claim, Ramos’s disability claim was approved, and he was able to keep his house. Ramos can now afford monthly payments after Bahls proceeded to negotiate a loan modification with the lender. The veteran is currently using the money that Bahls helped save him to begin home improvements.

“The work that Dan did was tremendous,” said Ramos. “No words can express the gratitude that I have for him and his team on securing my house after being medically discharged with 100 percent disability.”

Bahls provides free legal information, advice and representation to low-income veterans on Fridays at the VA in Leeds. Clients often come in times of desperation, Bahls said, seeking help with a variety of issues.

“People come in visibly upset, visibly concerned, and then after talking with someone for an hour, people walk away standing a little bit taller and visibly more confident,” said Bahls. “By making the intervention at the time that we make it, we can resolve an issue that was sending someone on a desperate, unsustainable path and put them on a stable path. It’s just a small change that can change the track that someone is on for years to come.”

During the grant process, United Way scored both Community Legal Aid’s financial health and past working relationship with their organization as 10, the highest score possible, and granted the law firm $30,000 each year for three years.

“Resolving legal issues can be fundamental to stability and improving individual health (physical and mental), which contributes to the overall health of the community,” John Bidwell, the executive director of United Way, said in an email.

Community Legal Aid, which serves low-income and elderly residents Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties, handles over 5000 cases each year, helping people secure safe housing, access benefits and receive food stamps, among other services.

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