Adecade ago, King County and the City of Seattle launched a plan to end homelessness. It was a 10- year plan. But, in January 2015, the annual one- day count of homeless in King County found 3,772 people living outside home- less shelters — 732 in doorways, under
roadways, in bushes or alleys, 770 in some structure or bus
stop, and 1,138 in vehicles. The homeless population increased
21 percent from 2014, though the figure includes 115 homeless found in
geographic areas that had not been
counted before. Overall, homelessness in King County is down from
the estimated 8,500 homeless when
officials wrote the 10-year plan.
About half of the unsheltered homeless population in the state can be
found in King County, according to
the State of Washington Department
The causes of homelessness are as
complicated and varied as each person’s struggle. But many who work
with the homeless say there are a
handful of common legal issues that
create barriers: bench warrants from
unpaid legal financial obligations
or missed court dates, unpaid child
support and wage garnishment, the
difficulty of challenging agency decisions to deny or cut off benefits, and
issues with driver’s licenses or identification. These problems compound
each other and, without assistance,
most homeless people cannot find a
solution or unravel their legal issues.
Unraveling the Issues
David Mace, executive director of Seattle’s Open Door Legal Services, believes “unravel” is an appropriate word to describe what
it takes for many of his clients to resolve their legal issues. Open
Door Legal Services is a division of the Union Gospel Mission in
the Pioneer Square neighborhood. The three-attorney firm does
not charge clients and holds a walk-in clinic every Friday staffed
by volunteer attorneys. Mace also visits other homeless shelters
in the Puget Sound area.
According to Mace, resolving one legal issue for a client often
means resolving a different one first — sometimes in a different
jurisdiction or even a different state. For example, a client may
not be able to quash local warrants without going to jail because
warrants in other counties need to be quashed first. Or a client
may have all his belongings in a backpack that is stolen, including documents such as vital records or court papers, and be
unable to get new identification without any of that paperwork.
Without ID, one cannot apply for housing, health insurance, or
have access to many other state programs.
Another common example, Mace says, occurs when a person
with mental health issues is unable to find work, and without the
income does not have the means to pay legal financial obliga-
tions, which typically leads to a felony warrant for non-payment
of fines. Because of the felony warrant, Social Security disability
benefits that pay for the mental health medication are cut off.
In some cases, complying with rules or regulations is impossible for a homeless person with no address or with few means;
sometimes it is a bureaucratic problem or a communication
problem. Either way, Mace says, a person struggling for stability
faces a lot of unfairness trying to navigate the system.
“Sometimes injustice is within the system and the laws need
to change. Sometimes the injustices are written into the procedures and it’s how the agencies talk to each other. Sometimes
the injustices are written into how the agencies interact with this
specific population,” Mace says.
Open Door Legal Services is unique in that it is the only law
firm located inside a homeless shelter. Several attorneys initially
conceived it as a Christian legal service firm. When the founders saw that the client base overlapped so much with that of the
Union Gospel Mission, it seemed to make sense, in terms of reducing overhead and combining resources, to become a division
of Union Gospel Mission. Mace took over as executive director
in 2007 and was initially the firm’s only attorney. The firm has
since grown to employ three full-time attorneys and a part-time
(soon to be full-time) administrative staff member. Clients of the
firm need not live at the Union Gospel Mission, nor do they need
David Mace, executive director of Open Door Legal Services, stands with some of the original office equipment
of Union Gospel Mission in his office, located in the Pioneer Square homeless shelter. The law firm, a branch of
the Mission, provides free legal services to the homeless of Seattle and Puget Sound.