For Texas veterans, a post COVID-19 return to normal carries added complexity
At nearly 1.5 million, Texas has the second-highest population of veterans in the country — including thousands who are facing hardship with their health, housing, and stability. As justices and veterans ourselves, we share a unique perspective and understanding of how civil legal aid can help remove obstacles facing those returning to civilian life after active duty and for those who served our country many decades ago.
One may easily overlook the myriad complications veterans face when they come home—landlord/tenant disputes, child custody issues, Veterans Affairs benefits, and more are often waiting for them on the other side of serving our country. Various groups around the state are devoted to working on behalf of service men and women, but there is always more that can be done to protect their access to civil legal services when facing difficulties such as threats of eviction or the inability to access medical care. This legal aid is crucial for veterans as they transition back into civilian life––especially during a global pandemic.
Texans continue to grapple with housing insecurity and other fallout from COVID-19, yet Veterans returning from combat or active duty are facing these same challenges and more as they navigate their return to civilian life.
In August, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF), in partnership with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) announced a $20 million Housing Stability Services (HSS) Program grant package for COVID-19-related housing legal services. These funds will allow TAJF grantees — legal aid organizations throughout the state — to provide free civil legal services to eligible households, including Texas Veterans who are experiencing housing insecurity. We are grateful to have received this invaluable funding to help our neighbors and Veterans still suffering the effects of the ongoing pandemic.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 5.2 million Texans, including a significant number of veterans, qualified for civil legal aid. This number has continued to increase as we have seen the ongoing devastating financial and economic repercussions, unemployment, and uncertainty caused by COVID-19. Veterans aren’t exempt from this; they are a group that is already at risk of falling behind, made even more vulnerable because of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, four of the top-10 unmet needs of homeless Veterans are a result of legal issues, according to the annual survey of homeless and formerly homeless veterans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Legal aid programs, local bar associations, law schools and pro bono lawyers all help provide civil legal aid for those who have served in the United States Armed Forces, but without adequate funding they struggle to meet demand. Legal issues impacting Veterans––including credit problems, restoring a driver’s license, and denial of critical medical care––are essential legal issues that must be handled to keep Texas Veterans from slipping through the cracks.
TAJF, created in 1984 to provide funding for civil legal aid in Texas, is committed to the vision that all Texans will have equal access to justice, regardless of income. In 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, legal aid providers pivoted from coordinating in-person Veteran legal aid clinics to virtual clinics across the state, along with creating a series of videos about benefits available for Veterans. Last year, the Foundation awarded more than $6 million in two-year grants to 13 Texas legal aid providers to provide civil legal services to low-income Veterans, thanks to support from the Texas Legislature and generous donations from Texas lawyers and law firms. We are grateful to the Texas Legislature for acknowledging the high level of need and providing an additional $1 million in funding this year.
Each year, the week of Veterans Day is designated as Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week (TVLAW). This year from Nov. 8-12, local bar associations, legal aid organizations and law schools across Texas are hosting free, virtual legal clinics to serve veterans with the support and civil legal guidance they need. To find a clinic in your area, visit texaslawhelp.org or call the statewide hotline at 1-800-622-2520.
We implore you to join TAJF in prioritizing veterans’ access to critical civil legal resources. These legal aid services make a profound difference in the lives of Veterans who qualify, and support for these services ensures that they aren’t left behind as the state works toward COVID-19 recovery for all.
As we collectively struggle to find our way through this new normal, Texas veterans remain at increased risk from problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all responsible for making sure they are adequately being taken care of, as they have taken care of us.
Nathan L. Hecht is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas and is a U.S. Navy veteran. Chari L. Kelly is a justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals and is a U.S. Army veteran and former paratrooper.