Students at Boalt's Community Law Center Address Questions of Guardianship, Benefits, Housing
by Fernando Quintero
In an old Shattuck Avenue storefront near the Berkeley-Oakland border that once housed the offices of the Black Panther Party, Boalt Hall law student Mara Velasco learned her toughest lesson yet.
Velasco is one of several students working at the Berkeley Community Law Center, a community-based legal clinic specializing in housing and public benefits law that opened in 1989--thanks to the sustained efforts of a handful of Berkeley law students and professors.
Recently, the clinic expanded its client base to include people with AIDS, representing them in attaining benefits and housing, in addition to handling guardianship issues.
For Boalt Hall students, the experience of working at the clinic provides more than a first-hand look at public-interest law. It offers a crash course in harsh reality.
"I came into this thinking everyone's problems would be solved," said Velasco. "There are a lot of people out there using drugs, and with psychological and emotional problems.
"Sometimes, it's frustrating helping people with problems because you need participation on the client's behalf. You can't make sure they go to their medical appointments or fill out their forms. There's only so much you can do."
Added Velasco: "There's this whole community out there on the road to self-destruction. It's hard to watch."
About a dozen students work under the supervision of the center's director, Bernida Reagan, and two staff attorneys. The students receive course credit for their time.
The clinic experience is different from other field placements and internships, where law students work out of traditional law offices.
"You're dealing with real people. A lot of law jobs are just research, this is the real world," said Velasco, who chose to work with HIV-infected clients because she recently lost an uncle to AIDS.
Boalt law professor Stephen Sugarman, who co-teaches a course in community law practice--the classroom component to the students' clinical work--said the experience at the clinic proves invaluable whether students pursue public-interest law or not.
"Our hope is that it will encourage a spirit of public service, and at least make pro bono work a part of their future," said Sugarman.
The clinic is funded mostly through federal grants administered by Alameda County, and serves around 200 clients a year.
About half of the clients are homeless, with an average annual income of $300 a month.
Half of the clinic's HIV-infected clients are gay or bisexual. The other half are drug users and their partners.