The mission of the General Assistance Advocacy Project is “to provide education, empowerment, and advocacy to those who need it most. G.A.A.P. serves over 2,000 homeless and marginally housed San Franciscans each month by helping them obtain and retain the public benefits to which they are entitled.” As a non-profit drop-in legal clinic for individuals who are looking for resources, referrals, or information regarding public benefits, G.A.A.P.’s purpose is immense. By providing direct, face-to-face service and assistance to people who need help navigating the dense and unfriendly nature of our country’s bureaucratic system, I am advocating for the state and/or federal government’s recognition of their humanity.
The members of the community I serve within (the Tenderloin and greater county of San Francisco) rely on advocates like myself and the three other undergraduate and graduate students whom I am serving alongside in the G.A.A.P. office to help address a variety of important issues when they would otherwise be unable to obtain legal assistance. Clients often come to G.A.A.P. as a point of entry to services they are unable to find on their own, or as a last resort when they have been unable to receive assistance from anyone else. The fact that G.A.A.P. operates as a direct services drop-in clinic four days out of the week (the office is closed to the public on Wednesdays) means that clients do not have to overcome the same eligibility criteria and barriers of communication that typically occur when attempting to access professional legal services. The work that I am conducting at G.A.A.P. as a Direct Services & Public Benefits Advocate (my title) is vital to ensuring that low-income members of the San Francisco community continue to have access to legal and social services.
The individuals who come into G.A.A.P. are oftentimes struggling with a combination of issues including lack of income and housing, mental and physical disabilities, and substance abuse. The Direct Services & Public Benefits Advocates who serve at G.A.A.P. take a holistic approach to client advocacy in order to fully address the intersecting legal and social issues that clients may be dealing with. The holistic approach and client advocacy that G.A.A.P. Advocates provide is informed greatly by the two staff attorneys who are on duty at the organization full-time: Kendra Amick and Gary Lewis, both of whom graduated from U.C. Hastings College of Law. Conducting client casework and advocacy services would be much more difficult if they were not around to help us help our clients! While we (the Advocates) may not have the capacity to legally represent the client in resolving each issue or offer legal advice, we aim to provide clients with as much information and helpful referrals to other agencies whenever possible.
The individual work I conduct is three-fold: I manage the front-desk and reception area and determine when clients can see advocates as they become available, serve face-to-face behind a desk in the back area as an informal legal Advocate, and am in charge of helping to coordinate a formal, organized workshop that will be held in July for low-income or homeless individuals who have received fare evasion citations instructing them on how to write an impactful appeal letter to the court order to fight the charges they’ve been fined with. There is a great deal more that I could write about with regard to the workshop organizing, but I will save the intricacy of transit justice and its concomitant details for a later blog post.
The past eight days of work at G.A.A.P. have provided me a lot of enjoyment in the form of meeting wonderful new people who are just as passionate about social justice work as I am. My fellow interns are incredible people with a lot of heart – two of whom are already in school to earn their law degrees in the graduate programs at U.C. Hastings and Golden Gate University (both of are located in San Francisco). I have enjoyed having my mind opened to new ways of thinking and learning about social justice issues as they relate to real-world legal matters. During the academic year at Saint Mary’s, I am often only exposed to theoretical problems and issues. Having all of these interpersonal experiences with people living in and around the community of the Tenderloin is incredibly emotional, and an entirely visceral experience from which I can learn the ways in which my theoretical, academic learning relates to the realities of others. To understand the areas of privilege from which I come through a legal lens is incredibly interesting, and at the same time considerably devastating when truly understanding how greatly such privilege of mine impacts others. The poor are kept in a marginalized state for the benefit of those in county, state, and federal programs intending to make money off their cycle of poverty. It is a sick, backwards, capitalistic system.
I know it is my duty as an interning Advocate at G.A.A.P. to do everything I can in order to create change and reform in policy and legislation within San Francisco. That so many individuals who are disabled, mentally ill, struggling with eviction, or devastated by any other marginalizing circumstances are treated so poorly is rage-inducing for me. All I want is to learn how I can best serve those who are treated completely unfairly by being the best Advocate I can. My privileges as a White, able-bodied, U.S.-born citizen who speaks English fluently, comes from a middle to upper-middle class background, and is currently earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in a higher education institution are pieces of my identity that I need to utilize for the greater good of others. What I am doing is not charity work. It is not drive-by service. It is solidarity and immersion into the communities of those who want to see the qualities of their lives improved. I want to do everything I can to uplift and empower those individuals to live their lives as fully as possible with the same possibilities and potential for success as everybody else. I believe in the clients who come into the office at G.A.A.P., and I will use all resources possible to ensure that I am making a significant dent in improving local policy that will help change their life experiences for the better.