Breaking down barriers
to housing

Homelessness doesn’t have a single cause. From unemployment, addiction, and health problems to lack of transportation, recent release from prison, or general income insecurity, a number of challenges may combine to put housing security at risk.

In keeping with Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s emphasis on social justice and knowledge in the service of others, alumni and current students are actively working to address the interlocking legal, medical, and social issues that contribute to homelessness.

Niya Kelly (BA ’07, MA ’10, JD ’13) is state legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), which advocates for people across Illinois. She oversees CCH’s statewide legislative agenda and works on several educational programs.

Kelly helped create and pass several recent pieces of legislation aimed at hurdles to employment and, by extension, housing security: a law waiving the fee for homeless people seeking copies of their birth certificates, legislation enabling full-time community college students who are homeless to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and an extension of therapy and counseling sessions for youth experiencing mental health issues that put them at risk of homelessness.

The CCH accepts no governmental funding at any level. “We’re here to advocate for the shelters and social services organizations on the front lines, ensuring they do their work without fear of losing their budgets,” Kelly says. “We have great people out there doing the work. Our job is to make sure they can do it.”

There are so many factors that contribute to homelessness…success with transitioning out of homelessness requires a full-court press.
— Colleen Kujawa Boraca (JD ’02)

Colleen Kujawa Boraca (JD ’02) directs the Northern Illinois University (NIU) College of Law Health Advocacy Clinic, a medical-legal partnership (MLP). Boraca, previously an adjunct professor at Loyola’s Health Justice Project MLP, says her time as a prosecutor in Cook County’s mental health division and as a  staff attorney at the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago  “opened my eyes to the strong correlation between mental health issues and homelessness.”

Located at the state’s second largest homeless shelter, Hesed House in Aurora, Ill., the clinic focuses on income security. Students enrolled in the clinic spend at least one full day a week on site helping clients obtain stable income through Social Security and Medicaid benefits. Once a week, students meet at NIU for a two-hour seminar focusing on skill building and substantive issues.

A recent clinic success included partnering with the NIU School of Psychology to help a single mother with severe PTSD obtain Social Security disability benefits. In another successful case, student clinicians enlisted health care providers to translate detailed medical records, resulting in benefits for a man with a complicated cardiac problem. Both cases enabled clients to leave and stay out of Hesed House.

A widespread problem

Both Kelly and Boraca emphasize that homelessness is a much wider problem than commonly seen—and that people without homes, especially “couch surfers” and others staying temporarily with friends and family, are habitually undercounted. Far from the stereotype of jobless individuals sheltering for years under bridges and viaducts, many people are often two or three paychecks away from experiencing housing instability. Boraca says her student clinicians are often shocked to learn that about half the people living at Hesed House are currently employed.

At the CCH, the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, and every other organization battling homelessness, having a comprehensive view of the risks is key to effective advocacy. “Our clinic students learn how lawyers work with health care providers, social workers, and other professionals,” Boraca says. “There are so many factors that contribute to homelessness—for our clients, success with transitioning out of homelessness requires a full-court press.”

 “Providing a home is at the center of solving homelessness,” Kelly adds. “But if people don’t have the supportive services that help remove obstacles—whether it’s getting medication, receiving groceries, or having access to job opportunities after incarceration—we’re setting people up to experience homelessness again.”

Service for others is a pillar of a Jesuit education and central to the Loyola JD experience. Ready to learn how we match our ethics with academic excellence? Learn more