Kenneth Jacobs held a job his entire adult life until 2008 when he suffered a heart attack.
It was the first in a string of serious health complications — including coronary artery disease — that sidelined him from work and left him homeless.
“I was always in the hospital,” said Jacobs, 55, who worked as a security guard in Jacksonville. “When I kept getting sicker, I got evicted in 2009 and couldn’t do the work anymore.”
Ultimately, pro bono attorney Mark Papa, assigned to Jacobs’ case through the Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership (NFMLP), helped Jacobs gain stability.
But there would be obstacles.
After he was evicted, Jacobs spent a few months at Salvation Army before he started living at the Sulzbacher Center, which provides shelter and other services, including health care, for Jacksonville’s homeless.
Sulzbacher administrators recognized that Jacobs’ medical problems had accompanying legal issues.
That’s when the Sulzbacher Center referred Jacobs’ case to the NFMLP, an initiative through which medical professionals identify cases where legal issues are creating obstacles to their patients’ well-being. The Florida Bar Foundation provided a two-year grant just under $79,000 to increase both referrals of patients by medical providers and placement of patients with pro bono attorneys. Through the collaboration of medical providers, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, and local law firms, the number of referrals and placements were doubled from 2009 to 2010 and are on track to increase by more than 50 percent during 2011.
In April 2010, Jacobs was first placed with pro bono attorney Vanessa Lipsky, but before moving away in July, she tapped Mark Papa, of the law firm Harrell & Harrell, who specializes in Social Security rights, to take the case.
Although Jacobs was entitled by law to receive Social Security disability benefits, his claims were denied in April and November 2010.
In the meantime, Jacobs was able to move into his own apartment with help from a rental subsidy provided by the city of Jacksonville’s Welfare Services program. Social Security administrators only had Jacobs’ medical records to determine if he was eligible for benefits, which is why he was probably denied, Papa said.
“It was simply a review of medical records, no face-to-face conversation with Mr. Jacobs to tell them how his medical conditions affect him, and no advocacy,” Papa said. “It was hardly enough to paint the picture.”
In September, Papa obtained a hearing where Jacobs won the appeal to receive Social Security disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income.
And it was just in time.
Three weeks before the hearing the city of Jacksonville notified Jacobs that they were no longer providing the rental subsidy for his apartment, Papa said. Now, with income from his Social Security disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income, Jacobs is able to pay his rent.
“The hearing made all the difference,” Papa said. “Mr. Jacobs was able to tell the [hearing officer] those things that weren’t in the medical records and a complete picture was painted.”
Papa was a genuine friend in his corner, Jacobs said.
“When I met Mark it was like meeting a best friend,” Jacobs said. “He puts everything so you can understand. You couldn’t ask for a better person to handle your case.”
Without an attorney, Jacobs most likely would’ve gotten lost in the shuffle, which is why Papa said attorneys should make pro bono cases a priority.
“I think there’s an obligation to do it if you can,” said Papa, who’s been doing pro bono work for two years. “There’s always time to do it no matter how busy you are.”
“We’re privileged in a sense to get through college, law school, and to me it’s rewarding to help someone who is not so privileged.”