A line formed outside the brick chapel at Grace Marketplace early Saturday morning. The people waiting had different issues in mind, but all had one goal: getting legal advice from qualified attorneys.
Thanks to three Gainesville law organizations, residents at Grace Marketplace, a homeless shelter at 2845 NE 39th Ave., are now able to consult with lawyers for free.
Marcie Green, pro bono coordinator at Three Rivers Legal Services, said her company already offers free phone service for low-income residents in North Florida, but some people struggle with having enough cellphone minutes to call in.
Three Rivers Legal Services partnered with Southern Legal Counsel and Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association to bring free legal aid directly to people who need it but lack the resources to access it.
One candidate for this program is 53-year-old Richard Humphrey, who has lived in a tent at Grace for a month. He had questions about a past misdemeanor charge and how to get proper identification. Because he hasn’t been able to get his ID renewed, he said, it has been like he does not really exist.
Instead of meeting with potential clients in private offices, the volunteer lawyers made do with what they had. Multiple consultations happened at the same time in the chapel’s sanctuary, with lawyers spread out for privacy’s sake.
“We were able to keep it separate, even though we didn’t have separate offices,” said Ray Brady, president of the state’s Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association.
Brady said the lawyers answered questions about criminal matters, family law and public benefit issues.
Green said the confidentiality that lawyers guarantee their clients is still a priority when helping the homeless.
“It’s a little different than serving a meal or providing clothes,” she said. “They don’t necessarily want the world to know they have a legal need.”
University of Florida law students helped clients fill out intake forms and asked residents for basic information. One man asked for Grace Marketplace’s location to fill in for his address.
Brady asked every resident one question: Try to identify a legal problem contributing to your homelessness.
“We’ll see if we can help,” he said.
The lawyers came with different specialties – family law, criminal defense, debt collection, insurance – unsure what to expect. Saturday’s event was the first of its kind at the shelter. The organizations plan to continue offering these services at Grace on the first Saturday of every month.
Kirsten Clanton, director of the Homeless Advocacy Project at Southern Legal Counsel, said she hopes the service will benefit those who are homeless because of a lack of legal help.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t get a private attorney,” she said. “There really are legal barriers keeping people in homelessness.”
For 36-year-old Joshua Jackson, the event gave him hope for his custodial dispute.
Jackson said he didn’t have money for a law consultation to discuss the issue, and he wasn’t sure what to do next.
He said he is transitioning into a home and does not consider himself homeless. He came to Gainesville to pray and meditate about getting his son back.
When he heard about the event, he saw it as a sign from God.
“This is the first time I’ve had any legal advice,” he said, crying as he spoke. “It was amazing.”