Providing legal aid to seniors
BY IAN M. FISHER (3L)
After working for the federal governmern and a massive corporate law firm in Washington D.C., Vanessa Buchko (née NesSmith) wanted to get back to one of her original interests.
A little more than year ago, Buchko (JD 01) was browsing jobs on www.idealist.org when one jumped out at her.
AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly was looking for a full-time attorney for Project HELP, the Homebound Elderly Project. It turned out to be the perfect job for Buchko. “I knew when I was in school that I wanted to do public interest work in general, but I didn’t have a very clear focus as to what type of work would be best for me,” Buchko said. “Trying different jobs helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my career and brought me back to public interest.”
The Legal Counsel for the Elderly founded Project HELP about two years ago through a grant that was funded by the D.C. Bar Foundation. Buchko is the only full-time attorney. Now she travels around Washington, D.C. providing free legal aid to low-income senior citizens whose physical limitations make it tough to get out of their houses. Buchko helps clients with a variety of legal problems, including estate planning, landlord-tenant and mortgage issues and disputes with creditors.
At first Buchko had to learn all of the relevant law to help her clients, but she enjoyed that process.
“It was [tough]. But that’s what I like about it — there’s always something new,” Buchko said. “Something new to learn, something that I’ve never done before that I have to look up. That keeps it fresh.”
Buchko sometimes gets emergency calls from clients who are dying and want to execute a will, so Buchko has to get to the client as soon as possible.
Clients often have issues with their landlords and Buchko helps them try to resolve the problems.
One of Buchko’s clients is in a motorized wheelchair and lives in a subsidized apartment that is not handicapped accessible, so it’s too small for his wheelchair.
“He keeps accidentally running into the wall,” Buchko said. “The apartment building was notconstructed with the best materials, so when he runs into the wall, more often than not, it makes a hole in the wall. We’ve been working with him to try to get him a handicapped accessible apartment or at least help him not bear the brunt of paying for the repairs.”
Buchko is in active litigation in a couple of landlord-tenant cases.
“Oftentimes our clients find it difficult to navigate systems, especially when they are facing harsh penalties like eviction. Sometimes people can be confused by the subsidy process and inadvertently pay the wrong amount of rent, which can lead to a lawsuit and possibly eviction. Other times, landlords refuse to pay for repairs, and clients are stuck living in dilapidated apartments. In a recent case, a simple disagreement with the property manager spiraled into a landlord-tenant lawsuit, even though the alleged problems were caused not by the homebound tenant but by his guests. In these situations, we try to help the senior keep his or her housing and make sure that the housing is in proper repair.”
There are parts of working with the elderly that are tough for Buchko.
“There have been a few clients who we’ve written wills for, especially the emergency clients, who have died pretty shortly after we visited them,” Buchko said. “I also have one client who I’ve worked with for the past year, and she’s starting to degrade a little bit. It can be really hard to see someone that you’ve grown to care about succumb to getting older.”
Buchko also sees many people, even family members, trying to take advantage of the elderly. “It’s pretty common,” she said. “Some people do such horrible things. It’s surprisingly common that people prey on older members of their own family.”
But overall, Buchko loves her job and would love to do similar work for the rest of her career.
“It’s wonderful. The sense of satisfaction is such a reward for the work,” Buchko said.