Silver Lining

From fundraising to pro bono work, bankruptcy lawyer Irving E. Walker helps break down barriers for the homeless of Maryland

Published in 2013 Maryland Super Lawyers — January 2013

On Jan. 25, 2011, Baltimore City’s Mayor’s Office of Human Services, among others, counted the number of homeless people in the city and found that the total had jumped more than 50 percent in just eight years: from 2,681 to 4,088. Compared to its 2009 count, there was a nearly 20 percent increase in those sleeping on the streets or in shelters that night.

Irving E. Walker wants to fix that.

“There are blocks [of abandoned homes] where it’s like a ghost town,” says Walker, a bankruptcy lawyer at Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard. “And there are so many people that need housing. … We’re talking about not having a place to live.”

As the board president of the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP), it’s Walker’s job to raise funds, recruit volunteers and implement new programming so the organization can provide free legal help to homeless people or those at risk of losing their homes.

Housing should come first, Walker says. Then it’s easier for people to get consistent help for issues that often lead to such dire straits—mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment. “People who have no place to live can’t really face or successfully address their problems,” he says.

Walker grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s. His dad, a small-home builder, put a roof over his head. His mom, a homemaker, put warm meals on the table. He says he’s been “lucky that way,” so he feels compelled to help those who haven’t.

Walker attended Duke University for mathematics and management science, then law school at the University of Maryland. He first practiced general business law, then business litigation. Then, he took on a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case that wasn’t getting enough attention.

“I didn’t know the first thing about bankruptcy,” Walker says. “It was an individual whose life was a mess—he had been a victim of predatory lending of a second mortgage lender. I got books out, taught myself what I needed to know, and it turned out very well. The guy’s life was straightened out.”

He found he liked litigation and using his business background. He liked helping people straighten out their troubles. “I love the combination of all those things,” Walker says.

Thirty-four years later, he represents large companies—such as Ritz Camera and Gemcraft Homes—in restructuring and bankruptcy cases, and others struggling with finances. He says his clients are often in situations other people think are hopeless.

“My job,” Walker says, “is to, however difficult the circumstances, help the client get the best outcome possible.”

He says a peak in his career was arguing and winning a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995. With HPRP, one of his proudest moments was the development of a program to get benefits to homeless veterans, who make up about a quarter of all homeless.

“We go to the shelters to find the clients,” Walker says, “and we educate them about what their rights are and what issues they may have that they don’t even know about.” And then about 400 pro bono volunteers (law students, paralegals and lawyers) take their cases, sometimes to help them get government benefits, like food stamps.

In parts of the state, landlords can refuse to rent to people with government-issued housing vouchers, Walker says. HPRP, which has nine staff members, has been trying to convince the Legislature that such income-based discrimination should be prohibited.

The nonprofit persuaded the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to let those who have violations on their criminal records be eligible for housing. HPRP also helps expunge their records so they can find jobs more easily.

Under Walker’s leadership, the organization has increased donations and grown the past five years, says Antonia Fasanelli, the executive director.

“It would not have been possible without him,” Fasanelli says. “His vision was that every lawyer in Baltimore should know about the organization and should, once they learn about the work of HPRP, know that they can play a part.”

That’s why Walker got involved.

“[HPRP] gives me an opportunity to serve others,” Walker says. Professionally and otherwise, he helps people in trouble “find a way to navigate out of it so that they can have a better life. I always see the silver lining. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do what I do.”

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