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Returning to the HAC: A New Adventure

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During both semesters of my 3L year, I was a student attorney at the Health Advocacy Clinic in Aurora and I have to say that being at the HAC was one of the best parts of law school because I could finally put into practice everything I had learned. I had my own clients and everything! My guided tour of Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois, was also the first time I had ever stepped foot inside a homeless shelter. Parts of my experience at the HAC were heart-wrenching, but upon later reflection (which is critical to the clinical experience), I found that each day was satisfying in its own right.

So when I learned that an AmeriCorps VISTA position opened up at the HAC, I leapt at the chance. The period between finishing studying for the bar exam and landing your first job is beyond stressful even though you suddenly have tons of time on your hands. The fact that I knew I’d be returning to the HAC to work in a community I had become familiar with helped the transition quite a bit.

Being a VISTA here will certainly pose some interesting challenges because I am no longer working directly with clients, but have a more behind-the-scenes role. Also, a VISTA’s pay is purposely limited to be at or near the poverty line. This will allow me to better understand and appreciate the work that the HAC does for its homeless clients. How better to understand your client’s financial instability than to be in a similar position? Granted, I still have my own apartment to come home to every night, which is a stark difference between me and the clients the HAC serves, but the financial limitations of being a VISTA will undoubtedly further teach me humility, a value that is key to a legal career in public service.

I am one week into my year of service and am already impressed by how much work needs to be done so the law students can have a beneficial clinic experience and to increase the capacity of the clinic, which is one of my main focuses. I continue to learn something new every day and the environment here provides tons of opportunity to further hone my community outreach, interviewing, and public relations skills.

I am beyond thrilled to be back at the HAC where, just like when I was a student attorney here, I can leave here knowing that the work being done by not just the HAC, but the Hesed House and Aunt Martha’s Health Care staff, is invaluable and extremely important to the low-income and homeless residents of Kane County.

 

Heather Skrip

Class of 2016

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The spring semester 2016 is coming to a close for the student attorneys at Northern Illinois University College of Law’s Health Advocacy Clinic (“HAC”). As this semester quickly comes to an end, I spent some time reflecting on my time at HAC.

 

During the semester, we are required to complete Critical Experience Assessments  (“CEAs”) that act as an outlet for us, as students, to process the situations, people, and/or experiences we come across. Recently, I looked back at the first CEA I wrote, after my first week working with Hesed House, Aunt Martha’s and HAC and I wanted to share a portion of it with you.

 

“This CEA, I want to talk about my first week at the HAC. Specifically, my second day there – which included a tour of Hesed House. The tour started with a meeting in the Hesed House library, and then we went on a guided tour. During the tour we saw the PADS sleeping area, the locker section, the cafeteria, kitchen, and the Transitional Living Community (TLC) where many children stay at Hesed House. As we walked through, we passed by many of the guests – female and male.

 

That morning, getting ready for my second day at the clinic, I was mentally preparing myself to be very aware and conscious of what the tour might bring. I had expected that I would not be too surprised by what I saw – thinking that because of past experiences (such as volunteering at soup kitchens, working with homeless students at a prior internship, etc.) I would have been desensitized to the “shock” effect that a homeless shelter often has on people. During the tour, I found myself not desensitized as I had anticipated. Rather, I found myself very emotional. At one point I actually had to tell myself to hold back tears. That point came when we were in the “bright room” in TLC.

 

The “bright room” is a room intended for children to essentially gain a sense of what we consider “normalcy.” Our guide told us stories of some guests she had interactions with. After hearing her stories, I felt a sense of being overwhelmed combined with humbleness. My heart was broken for the children of Hesed House that were growing up calling the “bright room,” one small room, their place to grasp a sense of normalcy. I was overwhelmed by the sad truth that there is so much that needs to be done for the homeless community, and that people are often afraid of the culture or just repelled by it.

 

At the same time, I was humbled. I saw the mats that are the “beds” for the guests to sleep on. I saw the small lockers – where the guests are able to keep all their worldly possessions, if any. I saw the laundry room and the kitchen. During that tour, I was able to see what it might be like to be homeless, in very small sense. After hearing the story from our guide about a male guest – who after receiving a new pair of shoes, cleaned his old ones to give to someone else who could use them – I was so humbled. Humbled, but also ashamed of all the petty and selfish things I have complained about. I thought to myself – how fortunate am I to have more than one pair of shoes, to have clean clothes  and a whole closet, a bed that I call my own, a kitchen for my family to use, and a warm house to live in and call mine.”

 

After writing this CEA, I really started to focus on why I had such an emotional response and where it had come from. My conclusion, after now taking part in the HAC for a full semester, was selfishness. Before I had started working at the HAC, I was focused on what I needed to do to get through law school. My plans revolved around me, my schedule revolved around me, my choices revolved around me. I had been so caught up in pursuing my career plans, that essentially I lost sight of the fact that the world does not revolve around me, and that there are so many out there who need help.

 

The HAC has constantly reminded me this semester to not lose sight of why I started law school. I came into law school passionate, wanting to make a difference in our world, but then lost sight of it as I became bogged down with school work, deadlines, a busy schedule, and grades. Being able to have the opportunity to work with the HAC, has not only pushed me to keep pursuing my dreams of becoming a lawyer but has also renewed my vision. The work we have done this semester with the guests of Hesed House and the patients from Aunt Martha’s has reset my focus. There is still so much that needs to be done in our communities, but it can be done when we partner together and strive to make this world a better place for one another.

 

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Perspective changes everything. A statement that I think most people are aware of but can never fully appreciate without really seeing things from a different perspective. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned since working at the Health Advocacy Clinic is what a “break” in life can really mean. For me, from my perspective, it is going on vacation or having a week off of school. For many of the residents here at Hesed House, a break in life seems to take on a different form or a different meaning, or perhaps more accurately, a different perspective. From the perspective of residents here, I think they see breaks often as things that I take for granted. They are happy to have food, water and shelter. So from their perspectives, I think something like hanging out with friends or watching a movie can constitute a break for them. I see these things as common-day occurrences, which looking at it from their perspectives, gives me a new-found appreciation. I really have got to see this through one of the gentlemen that I have had the honor to work with; his name is “Jim.”

I didn’t really have any expectations going into my first interview with Jim and the subsequent interviews really weren’t any different. I came to expect Jim to be the same as he was in the initial interview and outside of that, I expected little different as we had more and more meetings. I tried to keep an open mind about the interviews as best as possible and in doing so, it got me thinking about these experiences and this new-found perspective. What I was thinking during these interviews was how tough Jim’s life has been. He doesn’t seem to have, from my perspective, a break in the foreseeable future. But what he does have is a break, from his perspective, in the foreseeable future. I always want to work as hard as I can for clients, but I have gotten to know Jim and have an attachment to the outcome of his case.  This is because getting him benefits will, at the very least, produce some positivity in his life like having more money to be able to move out of his current living situation. By getting this for Jim, I aid in finding him a break which will hopefully lead to more breaks. Jim has lived a life recently that, after all of the hard work he has done, has ended up with him searching to find a home and trying to work to feed himself. Things that I take for granted. The struggle that Jim is having has provided a new perspective to me in regards to what a break in life is considered.  Breaks from  Jim’s perspective seem like everyday occurrences to me that help me get recharged for the next couple days, but nothing that provides a long- term recharge like a longer vacation. From Jim’s perspective though, getting benefits and getting housed would be a life-changing break that would lead to future breaks. Hopefully he gets one break and is able to turn that break into bigger and better breaks. Maybe one day we can share a perspective on the meaning of the term “break.”

One can’t help but to see how unfair life can be after working with the residents at Hesed House. Jim is such a nice gentleman and so strong willed that hopefully life will make its mission to give him some more breaks and allow for his perspective to change. I hope that Jim will always be able to fight and keep going because he really deserves a bigger break than what he has received recently. It is great that there is a break coming soon since he is getting housing help and is seeing people about his challenges in life. As much as I have helped Jim, he has also provided me with a new perspective on breaks and a new appreciation for what life has given me. It is amazing how different the perspectives make the meaning of break change.

I think these experiences have taught me to work that much harder for our clients. I will likely get a break according to my perspective at some point. These clients will hopefully get a break, as I see it, and I can continue to be aware of what a break is from their perspective so that I don’t take it for granted. Further, I think that my experiences with Jim and with the clinic in general have taught me that this is good work to do. These people have lived tough lives and they deserve breaks just like everyone else in life.

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It was Friday morning and I was waiting for a client to come fill out her Power of Attorney (POA) for Health Care. I was really excited for this because I had not had the opportunity to do an initial client interview yet, and this would be my first time assisting a client with completing a POA. I was also grateful I was able to have the experience of doing one, since POA Day was Wednesday, and I am scheduled Fridays at the clinic.

Going into the situation I was very nervous. I had never done a POA before and I reviewed the POA documents, but actually doing interviews is always different than preparing for them. I definitely have seen that play out a lot this semester. You can prepare all you want for client interactions, but often they go nothing like you planned. Going into this experience I expected the client to have a lot of questions. This document is for long- term planning, and the population we work with at the Health Advocacy Clinic often does not have a lot of long-term plans or knowledge about what POAs entail. I was thinking the POA meetings and paperwork would take more time than they actually did. Because if the client potentially did not know or understand the forms, filling out and explaining them would take some time. I also believed some of the POA would be left incomplete, due to clients not having contact information for their agents. I also went into the situation feeling unsure of how the client would react to me. We would have little opportunity to build rapport, and I would be delving into very personal information with them. It definitely left me with feeling awkward and unsure before the interview.

My client came for the POA appointment and things went smoothly. The client had all of her wishes pretty thought out, and she had all the contact information necessary for the appointment. This really surprised me and made the interview go very quickly and efficiently. I was also relieved and happy to see the interview go so well. When the final completed copy was given to her, I was very excited. Overall the experience went well.

I think the experience was good for me because my client was very pleasant and friendly. She communicated well and knew exactly what she wanted out of the POA and who she wanted as her agent. I think we are just taught to prepare for the worst, so I had prepared many situations in my mind prior to the appointment. I ended up being pleasantly surprised that it went smoothly.

I think it is very important to be prepared. And this is a skill I will continue to use and develop in practice. Since I was over-thinking the situation, it ended up being better than I had imagined. However, I do think expecting the unexpected or having no set expectations is more realistic. I think planning ahead to be prepared and equip yourself with resources to help our clients is all we can do. There will always be difficult meetings we cannot always be prepared for, or possibly easier meetings because we were prepared. It’s so dependent on our client base. And working with so many different types of people is something I have really enjoyed during my clinic experience so far. It makes us all constantly adaptable but appreciative of those meetings that go smoothly. I especially found this POA meeting insightful because I learned how to complete one. I was also able to help a client accomplish her goals of having a POA done for her family’s sake and making her medical wishes known to them. Completing POAs is a great feeling because you feel like you are contributing to the client’s life directly by making it better long term, and that is exactly why I want to be a lawyer.

Expungements and Sealings

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On February 19th, 2016, a fellow student and I gave a presentation to Aunt Martha’s about an expansion of the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic into an area of the law we have never ventured before:  criminal expungements and sealings. It appeared everyone who was working that day at Aunt Martha’s HOC or NIU Health Advocacy Clinic was in attendance, including Professor Boraca and Dr. Sun.

Because Professor Boraca, my fellow student partner, and I had all talked about how to best format the PowerPoint presentation, we began with a case example of “Rob,” a person whose life is difficult because he has a 2010 criminal conviction of destruction of property on his record. Rob is a 26 year-old man living at Hesed House’s Transitional Living Community who has saved up enough money for a down payment on an apartment. Because of his criminal record, no one wants to rent to him. Likewise, Rob has also been looking for work but because of his criminal record, no one wants to hire him. Because of all these hardships, Rob has become depressed, developed hypertension (high blood pressure), and is pre-diabetic. Because he does not have a reliable source of income, Rob struggles to pay for all the medications for his conditions.

My partner and I explained that there are two possible ways that we can help a person like Rob. The first is to expunge his criminal record, which removes arrests, court supervisions, and certain probations from a criminal record.  While the preferred method in the case of Rob, his record cannot be expunged. Rob has a conviction on his record for destruction of property, a conviction being a final judgment of guilt by a court. Convictions cannot be expunged.

The second option to help Rob is to seal his criminal record, which hides a criminal record from the general public. The record still exists and the police and employers required by law to look at the record could still see the record. When a general member of the public would look up the record, the general member of the public would not see the parts of the record that were sealed.  While expunging a record can only occur if there is no conviction, there is no such requirement for sealing a record.

After analyzing the facts of Rob’s case, we told the staff of Aunt Martha’s that it would be possible to seal his record, though various parties, such as the Illinois State Police, have a right to object to sealing of his record. The ultimate decision is in the hands of a judge. We then talked about how Rob’s life has improved since his record was successfully sealed—both potential rentors and employers cannot see his criminal record. Rob has rented an apartment and is working full-time as a sales receptionist. Rob is much happier and is no longer depressed.  He also can afford his hypertension and pre-diabetes medications.

We also talked about several common misconceptions that exist, including the misconceptions that “anything can be taken off of a record,” “I’ve been arrested multiple times so I can’t get my past expunged,” and “it’s a waste of money and time to try to expunge anything.” We then discussed the exact process for sealing or expunging a criminal record, which we predict will take roughly 6 months to complete. Finally, we reiterated that not every record can be expunged or sealed and thus, we will not be able to represent every person in every situation. Hopefully with Aunt Martha’s assistance we can help Hesed House guests similar to Rob in our example.

While initially nervous whether Aunt Martha’s staff would agree that we should engage in helping people expunge or seal their criminal records as it was outside of the traditional subject matters handled by medical-legal partnerships, I was quite pleased how the presentation went and the reception that we received from Aunt Martha’s. It seemed the Aunt Martha’s staff was excited that NIU Health Advocacy Clinic has decided to help people expunge and seal their criminal records. The staff members were active participants in the presentation, asking questions and answering whether they thought we could help Rob. One staff member, in particular, was quite happy that we were going to help people destroy or hide parts of their criminal records and noted that it is something that is frequently asked about by their patients.

With Aunt Martha’s support, we will begin selecting a client or two for a test-run of expunging or sealing their record. If all goes according to plan, NIU Health Advocacy Clinic will eventually open its expunging and sealing services to patients of Aunt Martha’s HOC.

 

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It was my first official day at the Health Advocacy Clinic in Aurora. While I had visited Hesed House before, I had never been on a tour of the entire facility and seeing it in its entirety with my colleagues in the clinic provided a fresh perspective of what Hesed House is today.

Growing up in Aurora, I had been to Hesed House on many occasions beforehand, as it is a cornerstone in the community and surrounding area. Whenever we had extra food at community events, we would drop it off for the guests there. We would hold drives and collections for the shelter at church, collecting different things at different times of the year. Growing up just down the bike trail from Hesed House, I had many memories of riding past on my bike, always seeing guests outside and sometimes riding away quickly if someone approached me or my brother. In the summers, there were tents behind the shelter, and more people were outside milling about outside in the parks surrounding the shelter. In the winters, you would see people bundled up and in groups in the neighborhoods close to the shelter. The bike trail served as a conduit, linking the shelter to surrounding areas and I would often see people riding bikes and carrying carts full of cans to the recycling center, which was within shouting distance of my front yard.

I had some expectations of what it was like, but I don’t know if I could have prepared for what I was about to experience during the tour, except just to experience it. I was expecting brick walls and room after room of painted bricks to form the inside barriers of the shelter. I was surprised to see the rooms in PADS where families slept in. I was expecting something more permanent, furniture, bunk beds, maybe shelves for storing personal possessions. What I saw were floors. Bare, linoleum-covered floors and thin mats of padding–their temporary placement every night reflected the transient and unpredictable nature of the guests who sheltered there. When I heard the sheer number of people a space could hold, I tried to imagine trying to get rest in those conditions, but was frustrated by the number of distractions. I could only think of the negative things.

While I didn’t speak with any guests during the tour, I gained some perspective of what awaited guests every night at Hesed House. I had worked with opportunity youth who had uncertain living arrangements as an AmeriCorps VISTA, but this helped me understand what some of my clients have experienced. Later that week, I mentioned to one of my friends that I was working with the shelter and he had volunteered there just the day before, working with kids on art projects. He also told me about one of his students who was staying at Hesed House and some of the challenges he faced. The tour was the point where many things in my life had come full circle, bringing me back to Hesed House. Instead of riding by, or briefly visiting, I was joining my friend and hundreds of volunteers in helping bring change to the guests at Hesed House.

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On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, the Health Advocacy Clinic group went on a tour of Hesed House with Elise Manzie, the new Assistant Director of Development at Hesed. Some of the students and I had already been on a tour of the building before while others had not.

I expected that I would not learn anything new on the tour and that it would be as much of a routine as walking around the Comprehensive Resource Center and Aunt Martha’s is to me because I was a part of the HAC last semester. I suspected that I would not feel any differently walking around Hesed than I normally do whenever I walk over there to drop something off or serve lunch. Although I am sensitive to the plights of guests, I did not expect to see anything new or different. Surprisingly, the main emotion that I felt during the tour was a sense of reinvigoration—especially in the TLC playroom. This was mainly due to the nice refresher we received from Elise about the guests and the problems they face, which reminded me why I am here. In actuality, the HAC is a course on my schedule, but it is the only one that allows me to really impact the world around me. When Elise told us about the video where kids were asked to choose between a Playstation for them or a coffee maker their parents wanted touched my heart especially when she said that that kind of behavior frequently occurs at Hesed.

I suspect that I went in to the tour not expecting anything new because going across the street to Hesed has become a sort of routine for me. My feeling of reinvigoration left me refreshed and reminded me why I signed up for this clinic with this particular population.

I probably unconsciously view going to Hesed as a routine so that I don’t get emotional each time I go there. If I did, it would interfere with the job I need to do. As part of my compartmentalization skills, if I were to get upset or emotional every time I saw the sleeping mats, for example, I would not be able to be a proper student attorney because I would be focusing too much on my feelings rather than the tasks at hand.

Yesterday’s experience of re-touring Hesed showed me that I might need to be reminded every so often about why I have elected to spend my Wednesdays at Hesed. I might need to spend more time reflecting on the positive aspects of our involvement there so that things do not become too routine.