Op-Ed by Nathan L. Hecht and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Alfred A. Valenzuela:
In his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln set the course for the American people in responding to those who have fought for our country when he proclaimed: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” This responsibility to protect and provide for those brave enough to do so for our nation’s citizens was not conditional. According to nonprofit Green Doors, across this country, veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing. Every night a veteran sleeps on the streets is another night we have been derelict in our duty to honor the service and sacrifice our veterans have made in defense of our way of life.
In Texas, we have the second-highest population of veterans in the country, and of the almost 1.5 million veterans currently residing in the state, nearly seven percent live in poverty. As skyrocketing rent and inflation rates continue to make housing difficult to obtain and evictions increase, many Texas veterans will experience homelessness after serving their country.
As veterans and advocates for access to justice, it is our responsibility to advocate for civil legal aid services that are transformative in alleviating pain points felt by Texas veterans returning to civilian life after active duty, as well as those who served our country decades ago.
In September, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation – which was created in 1984 by the Supreme Court of Texas and provides funding for civil legal aid in Texas regardless of income–received an additional $20 million in funding from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to continue the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. This initiative provides legal information and representation to Texans so they can maintain or obtain housing. These crucial funds allow eligible Texans, including veterans, who are at risk of losing their homes and previously unable to pay their rent to access a full range of free civil legal services.
Those who have dedicated their lives to service deserve access to our civil justice system. Earlier this year, TAJF announced the creation of the Terry O. Tottenham Veterans Justice Fellowship to help provide civil legal assistance to the brave Texas veterans and their families who cannot afford legal services otherwise.
Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week (TVLAW) is an annual initiative held the week of Veterans Day from Nov. 7-11, legal aid organizations, local bar associations and law schools throughout the state will serve Texas veterans by hosting free virtual legal clinics, offering legal guidance and support. Visit texaslawhelp.org or call the statewide hotline at 1-800-622-2520 to locate a clinic in your area.
Texas veterans continue to battle housing insecurity and homelessness across the state, due to a variety of factors out of their control. We owe it to the men and women who devoted their lives to protecting the rights that we enjoy, as we help deliver the access to justice they fought to protect. This Veterans Day, join TAJF in making access to vital civil legal aid a priority.
Nathan L. Hecht is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas and is a U.S. Navy Veteran. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Alfred A. Valenzuela is a U.S. Army Veteran and is the former executive director of the Housing Authority of Bexar County, president and chief executive officer of M.C. Valens, and a member of the Texas Access to Justice Commission.