A Lawyer's Calling: Helping the Homeless

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Lawyer Sczerina Perot never knows what crisis will walk through her door at work. There are single mothers struggling to pay bills and families who have lost homes.

Perot drops whatever legal research or policy project she's doing and "puts out fires for people."

She said, "It's like being an emergency room lawyer." But she likes the unpredictable nature of her job as a staff attorney at the Legal Clinic for the Homeless in Washington. She joined the nonprofit in 1996.

"Helping people is definitely my calling," Perot said. She went to Georgetown University's Law School focused on low-income clients and advocates or homeless families.

The job combines working with homeless and low-income residents and focusing on policy changes such as creating a rent-subsidy fund or ways to ensure homeless men have regular showers. That's part of her organization's effort in "making the shelter system more humane." The most common problem: Clients cannot afford to rent or buy housing in the District.

She loves her job -- everything except menial tasks such as data entry and photocopying -- and also wishes some things were better. A public interest lawyer with five years' experience makes $52,000 a year (median salary), half or less than associates at big law firms, according to the Association for Legal Career Professionals. Low salaries exclude good lawyers, some of them from low-income backgrounds, Perot said.

Her interest in helping others started in childhood, when her parents invited a refugee family from Vietnam to live with them. These days she meets many people who, despite poverty, show strength, humor and love for their children. "There are so many people you are just rooting for," said Perot, a mother who works about 30 hours a week. "You realize how lucky you are -- it occurs to you a lot in this job."

-- Vickie Elmer

© 2007 The Washington Post Company