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Dignity for Detroit's Down and Out

Bodman PLC provides much-needed aid to the city’s homeless and low-income residents

Published in 2013 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine

Michigan was hit hard by the Great Recession. The foreclosure crisis pushed many people out of stable housing, and the collapse of the auto industry left many without jobs. Statewide homelessness hit a high, topping 100,000 people in 2009 and 2010. 

“Detroit fell on its hardest times when the world wasn’t watching,” says Kimberly Paulson, pro bono counsel at Bodman PLC. The more than 150-attorney firm is committed to alleviating the legal issues that accompany poverty and homelessness around its Detroit office. 

To that end, Bodman is involved in the Detroit chapter of Homeless Experience Legal Protection (H.E.L.P.), an organization founded by U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey. H.E.L.P. is a legal clinic specifically for the homeless or nearly homeless. Volunteer attorneys meet one-on-one with guests of warming centers and consult on a variety of legal topics, including landlord/tenant issues, employment matters and outstanding debt problems.

Paulson joined Bodman in 2012 and is now one of only two full-time pro bono attorneys employed at a Michigan law firm. At her new job, she immediately began pounding the pavement to figure out what pro bono services the city had to offer and what it needed. 

“This was going to be my thing. I met with shelters, soup kitchens, social service providers, everyone, to figure out who is being served and who isn’t,” says Paulson, a longtime resident of the Detroit metropolitan area, who previously worked as a litigator.

She discovered a significant gap in legal services for low-income and homeless people. Paulson says, “When you’re living hand-to-mouth, it’s sometimes harder to get access to services.” 

The firm wants to ensure help for those who are just one major expense away from being on the streets. “So many low-income people get one traffic ticket, then they get pulled over again, get their license suspended and a misdemeanor,” Paulson says. “People will end up homeless because of this. Why didn’t they just pay the ticket? They didn’t have $250 lying around. Then they figure, ‘What’s the point of going to court?’ So they don’t show up. The situation just balloons out of control.” 

To handle cases like this, Bodman and Michigan’s 36th District Court have partnered on Street Outreach Court-Detroit, a project aimed at assisting the homeless population and those on the verge of becoming homeless. The court works to clear civil infractions and misdemeanors for those who commit to an action plan that may include job training, education or alcohol or drug treatment. 

Paulson is also proud of a firm partnership with Capuchin Soup Kitchen. When H.E.L.P. went on a brief hiatus, she approached the soup kitchen to start its own legal clinic. It’s now staffed with attorneys from Bodman and other firms from around the metro area, who assist clients with legal issues, ranging from housing and employment matters to obtaining basic documents. 

In 2013, 106 Bodman attorneys collectively logged 5,300 pro bono hours, and the firm as a whole also donated more than $34,000 to local legal aid organizations. 

Paulson says that working with individuals who are striving for a better life is the most inspirational part of her job. She’ll never forget a client who told her that his visit to the firm was one of his best days. Unemployed with zero income, the man had just completed an alcohol recovery program and was living in a sober house. 

“I was helping him with a divorce, and I asked if he wanted a sandwich,” says Paulson. “He got on a MacBook, searched for jobs and had coffee from our kitchen. I was able to treat him like a human being. On our way out for court, I took him by a few businesses in our building and he got job applications. He just had the most amazing day. 

“Sometimes it’s not even legal [issues]; it’s that people are not given dignity and respect. My philosophy is that you treat them as well as you possibly can.”

As her firm works to assist individuals hit with the effects of poverty and homelessness, Paulson feels Detroit itself is on the way to recovery. “The bankruptcy, reorganization, election of a new mayor, major construction and other significant changes occurring in the city now signify growth and rebirth,” she says. “The city still has a long way to go, but I think residents have hope for the first time in a long time.” 

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