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Colorado Poverty Law Project

Tom Snyder – Colorado Poverty Law Project
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Q. Can you tell me about the Colorado Poverty Law Project?

A. Along with a fellow Kutak Rock colleague, I founded the Colorado Poverty Law Project in 2015. The project recruits, trains, and offers opportunities for volunteer lawyers to provide legal services for low-income individuals. We conduct a monthly legal clinic at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, where low-income people meet with volunteer lawyers who do a sort of triage to figure out their issues, see if there are referral sources, see how they can help. Sometimes they’ll engage in formal representation and do follow-up work with the client.

That was the main function of the Poverty Law Project for a while, but now it’s become a resource for neighborhood associations to refer low-income individuals with legal needs, especially evictions. We get a lot of referrals from Legal Aid in Denver, the City of Denver, and the courts in Denver and Adams Counties. We’ll reach out to our volunteer network and see if we can match volunteers with clients facing eviction. For a city of our size, not to have a formal eviction assistance program is very unusual. That’s one of the reasons we have seized on this—there’s been a vacuum in these services. That’s starting to change because of our visibility and our work with neighborhood associations.

Q. What about the legislation side of things?

A. Right now, I'm working on some legislation that would expand the Warranty of Habitability Law that would give tenants additional rights.

Q. Has Kutak Rock been supportive of the Project?

A. The volunteers who participate in the program are citywide, including a couple Kutak Rock attorneys in our office volunteer. The whole Poverty Law Project is supported in a soft manner by the firm. We sponsor CLEs to assist in training our lawyers and they’re all handled by Kutak Rock, including everything from the drinks and food to copying and the paper, to getting us CLE certification. All of it’s done by Kutak Rock.

Q. Where did this spring from? Was there an incident or a case that precipitated the need for the Colorado Poverty Law Project?

A. That’s a good question. The Poverty Law Project became incorporated in 2015, but I’ve personally been doing this legal clinic at the Coalition since 2005 when I was in-house at a communications corporation. When the company changed hands, support for the pro bono work disappeared and lawyers began dropping out of the program. It was about that time that I moved over to Kutak Rock . I was overwhelmed with all the pro bono clients and wanted to quit, but a colleague suggested we take the program to the next level, including full incorporation, an executive director, etc., which would increase our exposure and attract more volunteers. We had that choice in 2015 to fish or cut bait and we decided to lift its profile. And it worked.

Q. Were there personal reasons for creating the Program?

A. It was something I felt personally compelled to do. Since I’d gotten secure in my practice, it was time to start using my skills to help other people. Even if it was in practice areas I didn’t have any familiarity with, I could at least read statutes and advocate.

Q. Why did you decide to focus on the needs of the homeless?

A. They’re such a visible population. I drive into work every single day, and our office is right on the edge of downtown, what we call the social services corridor. It’s filled with all of the various shelters and support services that the homeless tap into. As I’m looking out my window right now, I can literally see people lined up at these places. I got to know people at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and when I went to their medical clinic. I said, “You seem to have a never-ending population of people in need. Do you mind if I try this out?” They said yes, and I guess they liked me because they put me on their board of directors, but I eventually had to resign from the board to focus on this program. This year’s been the most pro bono hours I’ve ever had, for sure.

Q. Why do you think there is such a large homeless population in Denver?

A. Affordable housing is probably the biggest problem. People are getting pushed out constantly. For instance, a few weeks ago we had a man come in to renovate a mobile home park and he was evicting all the tenants so he could replace their homes with new ones and upgrade the park. We had 14 families come to us saying, “They’re going to make us homeless. There’s nowhere else for us to go. We can’t go to another mobile home park. The homes we own are right here.” We got involved and threatened the developer with an injunction. He backed off, but he really wanted to do this project and some of the tenants wanted a nicer place to live and could live with minor inconveniences if the developer would give them a little stipend. So we negotiated monetary compensation for 14 different families to make them relatively whole during the process. We were really happy with that. This situation was emblematic of the displacement that happens when you have the rapid development that’s happening in this region.

Q. What’s one moment or accomplishment that felt very satisfying?

A. One of the cases I’m so proud about was a homeless man who’d gotten notice that his father—who’d never been in his life at all—had died, his property had been sold, and it was worth about $30,000. The man’s brother also lived in Denver, but they weren’t able to get the money because they couldn’t convince the court that the father didn’t have additional children. He had no will, so his estate should’ve been left to his children, but they didn’t know how many there were. Instead of splitting up the estate between the two known sons, the money was sent to the unclaimed property division of the treasurer’s office. We went to the state to try and get the money back, but they refused unless we had a court order. We went back to probate, reopened the proceedings, and convinced the judge that what she initially did was inequitable. To her credit, she listened to us and issued an order and got the two brothers their money. I was happy we were able to turn something around and really make a difference for those guys.

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