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Lawyers Band Together to Help the Homeless

by Rebecca Barns

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If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, it’s hard to miss seeing the homeless on the way to work, but when you’re in a rush, they can blur into the landscape. A large and growing coalition of lawyers and law firms, however, is working together to help those in desperate need of necessities.

            The project started simply, in the winter of 1986, when a group of attorneys collected money from their law firms and colleagues to buy warm clothing and blankets to distribute to the homeless on downtown streets and at shelters. People were ready and willing to give, and they gave generously.

            Today their organization, called Gifts for the Homeless, makes winters a lot warmer for thousands of homeless people in the Washington area. Each fall the group collects and distributes thousands of bags of used clothing to more than 70 area shelters. Throughout the year, the group collects financial contributions from lawyers, firms, and the general public that it uses to buy new, high-quality clothing, sleeping bags, and blankets. Bart Epstein ’99 is president and chairman of the organization. Stephen Propst ’98 and Laurence Williams ’87 also serve on the board.

            Every cent of every dollar donated to Gifts for the Homeless by the general public goes to purchase warm clothing and blankets, and every dollar goes a long way. By pooling donations and buying directly from manufacturers, this winter GFTH was able to purchase, for example, more than 10,000 pairs of warm socks for just 46 cents each.

Though GFTH accepts donations from anyone, its efforts are focused on donations and volunteer help from the D.C. area legal community. The operation supports more than 70 shelters, soup kitchens, and housing facilities with clothing and other essentials.

            The D.C. legal community pulls together for the homeless in another way, too. Each summer they rock out in a fundraiser called Banding Together: The Battle of the Law Firm Bands.  Every participating band includes at least one lawyer. Fans at the concert “vote” for their favorite bands with their wallets: Each vote costs a dollar, and voting early and often is strongly encouraged. Many of the rowdy fans in the audience are summer associates from the Law School. One hundred percent of the funds raised at the event are used to buy clothing and blankets for the homeless.

            The crowd can get pretty charged hearing their colleagues belt out songs like “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.” Last year’s winning band, Williams & Connolly’s “Dangerous Communication Device,” received more than 10,000 votes. The sixth annual Banding Together contest will take place on June 24 at the Black Cat, a music venue on 14th Street in the District.

            “Gifts for the Homeless works hard to ensure that every major law firm, government law office, and private law department in the D.C. area participates in our summer concert and fall clothing drive,” says Epstein. “The events are great fun for a great cause, and when we work together we are able to make a powerful impact on the lives of people who desperately need a helping hand.” With the energy and creativity of these determined lawyers, they are likely to do just that.