The inside of the St. John Center for Homeless Men. Image: courtesy St. John Center

The inside of the St. John Center for Homeless Men | Image courtesy St. John Center

Attorney Bart Greenwald remembers exactly when he decided to do something to help Louisville’s homeless. It was last February, and he had just learned a homeless man named Kenneth Winfield was found unresponsive, and nearly frozen to death, on the steps of the St. John Center for Homeless Men. Winfield later died at University Hospital.

Just the week before, Greenwald, an attorney at Frost Brown Todd, had been at an American Bar Association meeting in California. There he had lunch with U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey of New Orleans. The pair discussed a volunteer program Zainey started in 2004 called Project Homeless Experience Legal Protection, or HELP.

Project HELP recruits volunteer attorneys to work with homeless people with small or “nuisance” legal infractions on their records that nonetheless keep them from being employable.

“Something clicked,” Greenwald said. First, he realized Louisville needed such a program; then he realized he was the person to make it happen. “I tell my son that when you think somebody needs to do something, sometimes that somebody needs to be you.”

Winfield’s story also resonated with Greenwald for a more personal reason. They are almost the same exact age. Greenwald is 50, and his birthday is May 5, and Winfield would’ve been 50 this past May 6. “It could’ve been me,” he said. “You just never know.”

So motivated, Greenwald approached the Legal Aid Society in March to begin a Louisville program modeled on Project HELP. The goal is to recruit 48 area attorneys to work pro-bono to help homeless men clear up the legal blemishes keeping them from employment, and by extension, housing.

The project doesn’t have an official name just yet, but Greenwald said the plan is to set up a legal clinic inside the St. John Center by late fall. The idea is to have two lawyers available to work with these homeless men, for two hours at a stretch, two days a month. They will talk to the men, learn their legal histories, and help them overcome any small legal barriers, which could range from misdemeanors, to outstanding warrants, to failure to pay child support.

For now the focus is just on helping homeless men, because the St. John Center only works with men. But if the program is a success, Greenwald would like to extend it to help Louisville’s homeless women.

Last year, more than 1,800 men visited the St. John Center; of those, only 25 were placed in a home. How many more men could’ve been helped by this kind of program? There’s no sure way to know, said Maria Price, executive director of St. John, because the center doesn’t ask about criminal records. One benefit of this program is that the center will have a much better sense about these issues after the program launches, she said: “I hope we will know more a year from now.”

Despite the absence of specific numbers at this time, it’s safe to assume the need for such help is immense, given how few of the men they were able to place in stable housing last year.

So far, 11 organizations have agreed to recruit volunteer attorneys for this project. The participating law firms include: Hayden Grant, Stoll Keenon Ogden, Bahe Cook Cantley & Nefzger, Dinsmore & Shohl, Sheffer Law Firm, Wyatt Tarrant & Combs, Bingham Greenebaum Doll, Frost Brown Todd, and Sites & Harbison.

Atria Senior Living and Churchill Downs Inc. also have agreed to partner with this project and seek volunteers among their in-house attorneys.

While the firms above are committed to help, the actual recruitment of attorneys is just getting started.

There are several steps before this project can begin. First, an advisory board will be created, followed by a training session in the fall to teach the volunteers how to work on specific issues related to the homeless, regardless of their areas of expertise. For example, Greenwald is a business litigator. “The point being, any attorney can do this,” he said.

Greenwald wants to have the program up and running before next winter, to prevent any more deaths like Winfield’s. “We’ve got the manpower in the community to do it, and I’d hate to see another person die if there was something we could’ve done.”