Laura Tuggle, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services executive director
NEW ORLEANS — Veterans accounted for around 10 percent of all homeless individuals in Louisiana, according to 2016 data from an annual Housing Urban Development (HUD) report.
The report reveals the dire need for veterans to obtain housing assistance, which is why Laura Tuggle, the executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), works every day to make that happen.
Discussing the issue with the Louisiana Record, Tuggle said veterans need a wide array of supportive services to lead successful lives, including housing, access to medical care, counseling and peer support.
“Legal help is an essential, but often overlooked solution to helping end veteran homelessness, to stabilizing the lives of veterans and improving health,” Tuggle said, adding lawyers help veterans struggling with serious medical problems access Veterans Affairs (VA) or disability benefits, so they can increase their income and obtain medical care.
“Legal aid attorneys help fight evictions and foreclosures for veterans to prevent the loss of their housing,” Tuggle said. “Lawyers help veterans expunge old arrest or criminal records to help them remove legal barriers to employment and so much more."
Tuggle said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury or other challenging medical problems connected to their former military service can cause communication barriers between lawyers and veteran clients.
“This can sometimes make it challenging to complete our work,” Tuggle explained. “Our staff are trained to be sensitive to the special circumstances faced by our clients and to use different skill sets to help us help the veteran get us the information needed to get the best result possible.”
Sometimes it is simply a matter of semantics, Tuggle added.
“It is also important that staff are culturally competent when working with veterans including learning the military jargon and understanding how past trauma may impact a veteran's ability to work with their attorney,” she said.
Tuggle said since the great flood of 2016, which devastated large portions of Louisiana, SLLS has seen a 750 percent rise in veterans seeking legal help for foreclosure prevention, contractor disputes, Federal Emergency Management Assistance (FEMA) benefits and title clearing to help them recover from disaster and repair their homes.
“We continue to have strong demand from disaster-impacted veterans for legal help even though it has been almost two years since the flood,” Tuggle said.
Working closely with the New Orleans Bar Association Veterans Justice Fellowship, SLLS is seeing an increased demand for legal help for veterans seeking disability benefits or help with discharge upgrades.
“With Louisiana's recent rise from having the third-highest poverty rate in the country to having the second-highest rate, we are seeing across-the-board increases in requests for legal help from vulnerable people including veterans,” Tuggle said.
SLLS recently expanded services to veterans attending Delgado Community College at its on-campus Veterans Resource Center and to veterans living at the Bastion, a new mixed-income housing complex in New Orleans.
“We plan to provide services to homeless veterans at the new Low Barrier shelter being opened later in 2018 in New Orleans,” Tuggle said. “In a few months, we are expanding our work through a Volunteers for Veterans program funded by the Louisiana Bar Foundation's North Shore Community Partnership Panel in St. Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa parishes.”
Tuggle said SLLS also hopes to expand services for veterans in the Baton Rouge area later this year, working in partnership with the Baton Rouge Area Bar Foundation and veteran service organizations.
“We continue to work closely with Start Inc. and Hope Center to provide free legal help under a Supportive Services for Veterans and Families grant to homeless veterans or veterans at risk of homelessness,” Tuggle said.
None of it would be possible without helping hands, she said.
“We are extremely grateful to the New Orleans Bar Association and its foundation, the Louisiana Bar Foundation, the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, our pro bono volunteers and other partners for making this possible,” Tuggle said.