During their spring break in March 2017, three first-year students from New York University School of Law volunteered on an alternative spring break trip at Mental Health Advocacy Services in Los Angeles. The students, Chantalle Hanna, Ana Namaki, and Lauren Richardson, attended MHAS’ monthly legal clinic in Pasadena, tabled at U.S. Vets in Long Beach, wrote letters for individual low income clients to reduce traffic and parking fines, conducted phone intakes and client follow-up interviews, and did research and writing projects on issues related to housing, special education, and mental health. We welcome their blogposts here to share their experiences of that week.
As a law student who is passionate about disability justice, interning at Mental Health Advocacy Services (MHAS) over Spring Break was a dream come true for me. MHAS provided me my first client-facing opportunity in a legal capacity. The staff arranged for us to gain exposure to the variety of work they do, the diverse clients they serve and the multiple settings in which they operate. We attended the clinic in Pasadena and went out to conduct outreach at Long Beach Vets. I enjoyed assisting with the client intake over the phones. In these settings I encountered clients who were facing eviction, who sought assistance in applying for public benefits and appealing decisions denying them the benefits they needed. I also researched the discipline gap in local public schools and worked with veterans on resolving their legal issues. I learned a great deal about fair housing policies and implicit biases. The experience helped strengthen my legal research and writing skills, provided great insight into a public interest legal services organization, and empowered me to assist the clients who sought our help.
Coming from a journalism background and new to the study of law, the week I spent working with Mental Health Advocacy Services (MHAS) was a new and incredibly valuable learning experience. Given the nature of journalism, I had worked on sensitive issues before, but trying to assist clients provided me a unique perspective. I had not previously been in a position where someone sought help from me on such personal matters. Even though my time with MHAS was limited, it was rewarding to contribute what I could. I worked with eight clients throughout the week, each of whom confronted a different hardship. Listening to the diverse difficulties each of them faced taught me about the services available to those with disabilities, but also about the barriers to receiving those services and how such services are insufficient in many respects. The research I conducted in order to help assist clients was highly informative. I am grateful that I was able to spend my spring break with MHAS, and would recommend such a volunteer experience to anyone interested in the law or in helping people with disabilities.
My week at MHAS has been an incredible learning experience. Having volunteered with people experiencing homelessness for several years in college and worked in international development abroad before law school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a public interest legal career in community development. My interests in housing, health, and urban affairs were perfectly aligned with the work I did at MHAS this week. This week, I was able to interview clients on a variety of matters from school discipline and special education to public benefits and eviction defense. At the legal aid clinic in Pasadena, I was able to help a client with a complex set of urgent legal issues. The experience revealed the ability of the law to help specific individuals, and the limits of the law in addressing behavioral and mental health crises. I was also thrilled to assist with the veterans’ legal services project while at MHAS by writing letters for low income clients to have their fines reduced and by accompanying one of the MHAS attorneys to advocate for a client in court. Creating a narrative from the facts and experiences of a person’s life and applying it to the law to advance justice for him was an exciting opportunity. Additionally, at U.S. Vets in Long Beach, I was able to interact face to face with new and existing veteran clients, doing intakes and discussing the legal and health issues that they face. Coming from a military family, this aspect of the trip was very meaningful to me. I hope to continue this engagement in the future. Last, my research project was a great opportunity to explore legal issues related to federal housing assistance, discrimination and local discretion in public housing authorities. Through the process, I learned a great deal about mental health disabilities, and disabilities more broadly, as they relate to housing policy and programming. This was an amazing service experience for my 1L spring break.
We at MHAS are grateful for the contributions of these three students and were glad to be able to support mentoring of a new generation of dedicated public interest advocates. They each reported a rich experience at MHAS that provided further inspiration to become skilled advocates and dedicated practitioners for vulnerable individuals needing legal representation.