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It’s Veterans Day, and we honor veterans and service members in Illinois and across the nation who have served in the military to protect our country, our freedom and our American values.

But when the holiday has come and gone, more than half a million veterans remain homeless, and many more face legal problems that they struggle alone to resolve — eviction and foreclosure, custody of their children, child support, and obtaining benefits, among others.

While there is a constitutional guarantee for legal representation in criminal matters, no such right exists for civil legal matters. Therefore, veterans who risked their lives for the safety of our country are left to sort through their complicated legal issues alone if they cannot afford the assistance of a lawyer.

Fortunately, Illinois has stepped up to address this issue. The Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN), a project of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation which Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation is a part of, seeks to correct this problem. IL-AFLAN provides free legal help to veterans, active duty military and their spouses and dependents across Illinois. The network does so via a telephone hotline. Those who need help can contact 855-452-3526 or visit the website, www.ilaflan.org.

One veteran, a current law enforcement officer, saw the IL-AFLAN hotline number in a magazine, and called it for help. He had physical custody of his 8-year-old daughter, but his ex-wife refused to pay child support or officially change legal custody. He lacked the funds to initiate a lawsuit, but he called the IL-AFLAN hotline, which immediately connected him with a Land of Lincoln attorney. She represented him on a successful motion to modify custody, and he receives support and was able to enroll his daughter in his local elementary school.

Another veteran, who is mother of three kids and a victim of domestic violence, was renting a place with countless problems — including a bathtub and sinks that would not drain. When she complained to the landlord, he shut off the water and disabled the air conditioning in the midst of a heat wave. He then filed an eviction action. The veteran had recently lost her job and had no money to move out, even though the unit lacked water and air conditioning. Her Land of Lincoln attorney helped the mother locate shelter, apply for SNAP benefits to feed her kids, and successfully got the eviction dismissed and sealed.

Without IL-AFLAN, these veterans may never have gotten connected to an attorney who could assist them with their legal problems. However, not everyone needs an attorney to represent them. The IL-AFLAN hotline is staffed by attorneys who have been able to resolve 65 percent of calls by providing callers with instructions and advice, as well as help completing forms and documents. When more than a phone call is needed, the caller is referred to an appropriate IL-AFLAN member, like Land of Lincoln.

Since its launch last year, the IL-AFLAN statewide network has provided civil legal services, ranging from brief advice to extended courtroom representation, to over 2,000 veterans and service members. Many of the legal difficulties veterans face are directly tied to economic, family and housing stability. Without access to legal services, these veterans would have had to face life-changing problems alone, potentially with dire consequences. Veterans not only deserve our praise, they deserve legal help when their families, housing, and economic stability are on the line. Any veteran or active duty military member who is facing a civil legal problem at 855-452-3526. IL-AFLAN is there for you.

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Clarissa Gaff is the executive director of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.

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