Philly lawyers take on NYC and win for the homeless everywhere

Marsha I. Cohen, Executive Director of Homeless Advocacy Project, working in her office at 1429 Walnut St. on the morning of May 18, 2017.

This is one of those David vs. Goliath stories -- everybody loves those, right? -- though in this case, David is a tiny Philly homeless advocacy group you've probably never heard of, and Goliath is New York City, because, come on, of course it is. 

But for all its might and mouth, NYC couldn't outsmart a nonprofit organization with an inspiring mission: helping people escape homelessness.  

After years of back and forth, the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s ridiculous refusal to provide copies of birth certificates for New York City-born residents of Philadelphia without proper documentation.

In doing so, Philly, which is disparagingly referred to as the Sixth Borough, has struck a blow not just for Philadelphians but for all New York-born residents living elsewhere in the country.

 How you like them apples?

With some judicially applied pressure from U.S. District Judge William Pauley III, NYC let HAP attorneys use their own photo identifications to vouch for their clients – a well-established protocol -- and picked up the $75,000 in legal fees.

Even as a native New Yorker, I have to give serious props to Philly for putting an end to a vicious cycle that threatened to shut off housing, health care, and employment to already-vulnerable individuals.

And for reminding them that no matter how down on their luck, homeless people don’t lose their rights just because they lose some paperwork.

Marsha Cohen, HAP’s executive director, described the Catch-22:

“Access to those services requires state-issued IDs, but these people could not get IDs without birth certificates and could not get birth certificates without IDs.”

Ah, bureaucracy.

Cohen said she contacted the city in 2015 to tell them their policy was different from those of all 50 state-run birth-certificate offices, including New York state’s, but city officials were all, like, fugghedaboutit.

"Yo!" said Philadelphia lawyer and HAP board member Michael L. LiPuma, in our city’s well-traveled vernacular, which I’m completely making up, but it’s true in its essence:  We need to stand up to the giant to our north.

So, HAP’s  lawsuit -- with pro bono help of Philadelphia and New York City lawyers from NYC-based Dechert LLP -- landed in September 2016 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

Also named as plaintiffs were HAP clients Anthony Green and John Kagian, whose applications for birth certificates had been denied.

When I reached Kagian the other day, he was eyeing his long-awaited birth certificate, which one of the attorneys had hand-delivered to him.

Kagian, 57, didn’t want to get too personal, but it was clear that the document was the key to changing a lot in his life.

“Today is a big day,” he said. “It’s not the end of the struggle, but it’s a big step.”

Over the years, Kagian said, life became more difficult as he lost more of his documents. But he hoped things were about to get a lot easier.

“I’m afraid to let it out of my sight,” he said of his birth certificate. “I’m going to protect it, make sure it’s secure, because I don’t want to go through this roller coaster again.”

HAP, which offers free legal advice, serves about 3,000 clients a year with a staff of 13 and 350 volunteers. Of those, 800 are requests for help to get birth certificates – often the first step for services.

Over the last four years, they’ve had 50-plus clients born in NYC for whom they couldn’t get birth certificates, no matter how many times they tried to talk some sense and sanity into NYC. Multiply that by 50 states and you get an idea of how big of a deal this is.

The rule change is just a few weeks old, but already Cohen’s been hearing from providers around the country. 

“Hi Marsha,” read one of the many emails, coincidentally from a lawyer in New York City. “Today, after 1½ years of struggling to find the proper documentation, we finally got the birth certificate for my client thanks to the new attorney protocol! My client is thrilled. Thank you so much for your organization's hard work with this lawsuit.”

I wondered how the small operation would celebrate its win. I envisioned a few celebratory drinks, maybe a party.

Cohen brought me right back to earth.

 “We celebrate,” she said, “by cheering and then moving on to the next fight.”

And that, NYC, is how we roll in Philly.

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