Grantee Spotlight: Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans

Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) has been working to end the homelessness crisis among veterans since they first opened their doors in 1990. They do so by providing multiple unique programs serving veterans statewide. The Hennepin County Bar Foundation (HCBF) has granted funds to MACV since 2011, specifically for the Vetlaw Program. 

The current iteration of Vetlaw began in 2009. At the time, Sara Sommarstrom, current Vetlaw Director at MACV, was working for the Minnesota Justice Foundation. At a family law clinic event, Sommarstrom connected with a veteran whose family was getting evicted. Sommarstrom realized that many legal issues facing veterans are complex, and a unique approach was needed to address access to justice for veterans. 

In November of 2009, MACV organized a family law clinic at a VA hospital. They saw approximately 35 people at this clinic and realized that one of the primary barriers to housing stability was child support. Soon after, a pilot program was created between the VA, the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, and the American Bar Association. Vetlaw came of age as these issues were being addressed at a national level.

The VA surveys homeless and formerly homeless veterans to pinpoint and address the biggest unmet needs. In 2008, child support was the highest ranking unmet legal issue for veterans experiencing homelessness. The VA learned that while there are a multitude of housing programs to assist veterans, many of these vouchers are based on gross income, and veterans are not credited with the fact that $600 of their allotted $1,000 is going to child support. Vetlaw was one of ten pilot sites for the Child Support Initiative and its model and findings were shared through a national report.

Vetlaw is unique in that it is an in-house legal program housed within a service agency specific to veterans and veterans experiencing homelessness. They held six clinics in 2010. In the fall of 2011, Sommarstrom joined MACV as a full time employee and began building the Vetlaw program. Today the Vetlaw staff is a team of four—two attorneys and two administrators. MACV has 60 staff members in total. Vetlaw has its own intake line and has its own eligibility standards separate from MACV as an organization.  

At the larger Vetlaw clinics, approximately 100 veterans are seen in five hours by paralegals, law students, and attorneys alike. Anyone who served in the military can show up for any issue at these legal clinics. Many clinics are held in the Twin Cities, but a few are in outstate Minnesota as well. Over 1,500 veterans were served via legal clinics in one year. Vetlaw and MACV use clinics to provide direct services and for name recognition. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, events have not been held at VA hospitals since March. “Clinics were a huge outlet for referrals and now they’ve severely decreased,” says Sommarstrom. Vetlaw has also transitioned from using a clinic-based model to shifting work to their staff attorneys, mostly via phone. 

The work being done at clinics, and with staff via phone, ranges from advice to legal representation in the areas of family law, criminal expungement, and housing. “I liken us to a navigator system,” says Sommarstrom, “We will talk to anyone that served in the military about anything.” Many times, Vetlaw staff must explain that there is no legal recourse. Oftentimes, non-lawyers do not know about contingency fees and fee-shifting arrangements that make representation affordable even for those with little to no income. Vetlaw tries to identify if there are affordable options, or if Legal Aid would take the case, etc.

Legal representation is provided when the issue is directly connected to a veteran’s housing stability, which in many instances is a child support case. MACV rarely handles nonpayment eviction cases because they can pay for a veteran’s rent. Vetlaw has contracts with legal aid offices around the state, paying legal aid partners a flat fee for their services. They raise a lot of unrestricted dollars and receive many grants to cover these expenses. 

Vetlaw receives no traditional legal funding, by design, but has been fortunate to have many pro bono partners, many of whom are veterans themselves, and corporate and in-house counsel partners, along with a plethora of volunteer attorneys and paralegals. Vetlaw served their 10,000th unique veteran this year. Since they started using a database 5 years ago, they have handled 15,000 cases.

Vetlaw continues to work with volunteers during this time. “Volunteers are basically like phone-a-friend for Vetlaw,” says Sommarstrom. Instead of handing clients off to volunteer attorneys, volunteers are asked to speak briefly with a staff attorney to address their questions. To save potentially hours of research for the two Vetlaw staff attorneys, volunteers can provide their expert knowledge. If you are interested in volunteering or have questions for staff, please contact Sara Sommarstrom, Vetlaw Director, at ssommarstrom@mac-v.org or 651-224-0292.