In an aging building on 16th Street a handful of attorneys and their volunteer aides offer services daily to elderly D.C. residents ranging from help in qualifying for food stamps to assistance in writing wills.
The attorneys and aides work for a project called Legal Counsel for the Elderly, funded by the District and the federal government and sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons. Services are free.
The aides, trained by the project, are inclined to listen sympathetically to the problems of their clients. The aides themselves are retirees who enlisted in the project through the AARP.
The program, first funded in 1975, is being used now as a model for similar projects in other states and part of its energies are now focused on working with the new groups. The rest of the project provides assistance to the more than 100,000 city residents age 62 and older.
"We offer three major services," said Paula Heichel, deputy director for technical assistance. The first is an information and referral service to head in the right direction people with problems such as housing and consumer complaints. The second is a public benefits checkup, to make sure elderly residents are receiving all the public assistance to which they are entitled and help with individual benefits problems.The third service is help drafting wills.
"We found that about 50 per cent of our clients weren't receiving the assistance they were entitled to," said Heichel. If you apply for one type of public assistance, such as Medicaid, you aren't necessarily told about other benefits you might receive, she said.
"The programs are so intricate and there's so much red tape, people end up against a brick wall and come to us," she said.
Sometimes the problem is getting the benefits after the client finds out about them, said Heichel. For instance, one woman came in to find out why she recieved only one $50 check from the government.
"She thought she was supposed to get it monthly, and she thought her landlady was stealing it," said Heichel. The project discovered that what the woman had received was a cost-of-living increase for Social Security. In discovering that, they also found that the woman had never before received any Social Security benefits, although she had applied years before, according to Heichel.
"She got several thousand dollars in benefits," she said.
The project began offering help with wills and protective arrangements just this year. Unlike the other services, the assistance with wills is limited to people with less than $8,000 annual income and $8,000 liquid assets through an agreement with the bar association.
"We have to refer anything above that to private attorneys," said Heichel, who said such an agreement was necessary in order to be allowed to provide the service.
The project's three staff attorneys are aided by about 30 volunteers, people like 61-year-old Alice O. Ford. "All the people I've talked with are appreciative of the counseling," said Ford, who has been working there since September.
"One thing they enjoy is that we give them time, whereas if you go to the agencies, the agencies may not be able to," she said. "Sometimes as a result they feel frustrated," said Ford, a retired member of the Howard University faculty in the department of dental hygiene.
Ford, who lives on Channing St. NE, works one day a week at the project, interviewing clients. "They come in with all kinds of problems - food stamps, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, protective services," she said. "I get satisfaction out of the feeling that I am helping someone."
The project is located in room 401, 1424 16th Street NW, and open 9 am. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The telephone number is 234-0970.