The Giving Issue: Digging Deep To Help Those In Need

Giving comes in all forms, shapes and manners. It can be as random as reaching into one’s pocket when approached by a homeless individual on a street or being part of an organization that strives to make the planet a better place.

We now enter a holiday season when giving — or some would say giving back and paying forward — is on the minds of many people, through community service, by toil and sweat, or with a checkbook. Jmore salutes those individuals who find ways to contribute to our world, and we salute the power of giving.

These stories are mere examples of the tzedakah (righteous or charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness) that take place right here in our midst. Let’s hope and pray that we can extend this spirit of generosity throughout the year and learn to be a bit kinder and more magnanimous toward each other. Therein lies the power of giving. — Jmore Staff

Attorney Irving Walker has provided legal assistance for homeless Marylanders for more than three decades.

Irving Walker is over the moon. “Today is an amazing day,” says the board member, pro bono lawyer and past president of Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc. “Last night [Nov. 4], the Baltimore County Council passed the HOME Act. This is huge!”

The Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act prevents discrimination based on the source of a renter’s income. That means landlords in the county can no longer discriminate against people who receive incomes through disability payments, housing choice vouchers, other forms of public assistance, alimony or inheritance. Its passage will be especially meaningful to seniors, people with disabilities and children who receive 70 percent of the housing vouchers in Maryland.

That’s great news for Walker, a managing partner with the Baltimore office of the Cole Schotz P.C. law firm. Housing discrimination is a major contributor to homelessness in Baltimore, something that Walker and HPRP have been fighting for decades.

A Baltimore native who lives in Owings Mills, Walker, 67, has been involved with the nonprofit since 2005. The group was founded in 1987, he said, when “the Maryland State Bar Association noticed a surge in homelessness and formed a group to help people facing it. We are the only legal services organization in Maryland devoted strictly to homelessness.”

Passage of the HOME Act is just one example of HPRP’s advocacy efforts. Earlier this year, the nonprofit worked with other organizations to support similar acts in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, as well as the Ending Youth Homelessness Act of 2018. Among other things, EYHA created a grant program to fund organizations that provide housing and support for the approximately 2,425 homeless youths in Maryland.

In great part, homelessness is the result of the decline in affordable housing across the country, says Walker. In 2018, HPRP was part of an effort to pass the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which was designed to provide affordable housing and community development in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by homelessness and urban blight. But since its establishment, AHTF has lacked funding.

“HPRP addresses systemic barriers that lead to homelessness. All kinds of things in the system prevent people from getting out of homelessness,” Walker says. “We have a staff of about 15 and over 500 pro bono lawyers, including law students. We go into soup kitchens and emergency shelters, we talk to people who are homeless. Everyone has a story.”

Walker is especially passionate about ending homelessness for the 11,000 homeless veterans in the United States.

“Veteran homelessness is significantly down, but it is still too high,” he says. “It’s unconscionable that anyone is homeless, and it’s criminal to allow veterans to be.”

HPRP helps veterans in a variety of ways. “We developed a signature program that helps veterans [obtain] disability benefits through the [Veterans Health Administration],” Walker says. “We also help veterans who may have been ‘less-than-honorable discharge’ and can’t get benefits.”

One of Walker’s pro bono clients was a veteran in that situation. “He was in his 50s and had been homeless for years,” Walker says. “Then, he found HPRP and I represented him. The VA reviewed his records, upgraded his discharge, and he immediately got access to health care benefits for the first time in decades.”

Walker says many homeless people have criminal records for petty offenses that prevent them from obtaining jobs and housing. Attorneys and law students from HPRP help people by expunging their criminal charges from the public record.

“My biggest wish is that we would eliminate homelessness and that people would understand that there is always a reason why someone becomes homeless,” says Walker, who belongs to Beth El Congregation. “Mental health and substances can be a factor, but many end up homeless because of terrible injustices and unwelcome circumstances. If you lose a job and can’t afford to pay your rent, it’s not so easy to get out of it.

“When I decided to become a lawyer, I wanted to help people,” he says. “Lawyers can make a huge difference and, really, everyone can.”

For more information about HPRP, visit hprplaw.org.