Head shot of Mary Gilg

By Mary Gilg, HAC Deputy Director

My late friend Adam was a colleague at Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. (FDSDI), where I started my legal career. Adam referred to FDSDI as the “Island of Misfit Toys” and used the phrase with the utmost love and respect for his misfit colleagues.

The phrase comes from a TV holiday special, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which has been around since 1964. In the special, Rudolph, ostracized and bullied by the other reindeer, flees the North Pole with Hermey, an elf who is picked on because he wants to be a dentist, not a toy-maker. On their journey from their tormentors, the two of them encounter and escape a fierce abominable snowman, and along with their rescuer Yukon Cornelius, eventually find refuge on the Island of Misfit Toys. The Island is home to toys that are broken or otherwise unwanted, just like Rudolph and Hermey were made to feel.

The misfit toys are accepted and find a community on the island, where they are protected by King Moonracer, a flying lion. Looking back, what Adam meant was that the lawyers at FDSDI were a bunch of weirdos but that we had found a workplace that nurtured that weirdness. Within the context of FDSDI, and what we were trying to do, being a bit of a misfit worked.

The Homeless Action Center is also an Island of Misfit Toys. Our clients, like the toys, have often been made to feel broken and unwanted. To best serve our clients, we aren’t like other law firms. It’s not every law office that you can roll into in jeans and a hoodie, stop and pet a dog or cat or two, and sit down at your desk to do some meaningful work, which could include being yelled at by a bureaucrat, driving around town searching for a client, or reading through a thousand pages of medical records.

I learned to be a lawyer in public defender spaces. I learned that you take the case you’re given, and you make it the best it can be. I learned that you don’t get to choose your clients, but you do get to fight like hell alongside them. I learned that everyone is more than the worst thing they have done. And I learned that there is value in fighting the good fight, even against the odds, even when you don’t win.

All of these things are true at HAC as well. HAC doesn’t screen cases; we don’t require that clients come to us with a case already fleshed out, or with medical evidence already in hand. We take clients who are unable to work with other agencies, for a variety of reasons. We know that all people – despite how broken they may be – have inherent worth. I think this is the purest way to practice the law and I am grateful every day that it’s the HAC way.

HAC has been specializing in SSI benefits work since 1990. We currently have 60 advocates and attorneys on staff. Their job is to help our clients qualify for and obtain SSI benefits. Twelve attorneys and advocates have been at HAC for 10 years or longer. Our three Senior Managing Attorneys have over 28 years combined experience doing not just public benefits law, but doing it the HAC way.

HAC has represented over 4,500 people in SSI matters in the past six years, and we continue to grow our capacity. We offer intensive training when attorneys or advocates come on board, and throughout the year in both the law and in areas like client-centered representation and trauma-informed lawyering. We use our expertise to adapt to frequent changes in benefits laws, rules, and regulations.

HAC also has an amazing Outreach Team made up of attorneys, outreach specialists, and housing navigators who take our values and mission into the streets. Outreach helps us truly meet clients where they are at, finding folks who are unable to get into the office on their own and people who are eligible for our representation but didn’t know it. The Outreach Team signs people up for interim benefits like Food Stamps and General Assistance in the field. And our housing navigators perform the life-changing work of helping our clients access and move into permanent affordable housing.

For the past year, HAC has also operated a Safe Haven housing program called Almost Home. Housing up to seven people at a time, Almost Home focuses on clients who are close to getting into permanent housing and serves as a much-needed transition from the streets into stable housing.

HAC is a special place to work, but not just because of what we do. Those of us who have stayed at HAC long-term – who have made careers at HAC – have done so because of HAC’s values. For example, we believe in harm reduction. The concept of harm reduction originated around drug and alcohol use and abuse, and at HAC we expand .these practices.

Our clients face harm from many sources: poverty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, the patriarchy, incarceration, mental illness, addiction, and capitalism, just to name a few. We strive to reduce the harm to our clients from these and other causes, while getting them an income and health insurance in a way that seeks to do no more harm. We meet clients where they are at, both literally and figuratively, going out into the field, visiting encampments or other places clients stay, and helping our clients figure out the best way to win their cases based on where they are and what they are able to access and accomplish.

HAC Values & Beliefs

We believe in client-centered representation and we do not condition zealous advocacy on being “easy to work with.” As lawyers and advocates, our job is to act in our clients’ expressed interests regardless of their poverty, addiction, or mental illness. Because we believe that our clients know best about their own complex identities, traumas, and experiences in various medical/legal systems, and have often experienced levels of identity-based oppression that we ourselves have not experienced, our goals are our clients’ goals. What this means is that if clients do not want medical care or addiction treatment – for any number of valid or invalid reasons – we will explain the impact on their case but we won’t require that they get care or treatment.

This client-centered model resists the urge to judge or condemn our clients for their poverty, addiction, or mental illness. Hand in hand with harm reduction, client-centered representation does not require sobriety or behavior modification. Our clients already face an array of condescending and dehumanizing barriers – often imbued with implicit bias around race, class, and gender – to accessing benefits.

We believe in low barriers. We have a drop-in clinic every Monday through Thursday from 1 – 5pm, at both our West Oakland and Berkeley offices, where clients can drop by and receive assistance. We also don’t require clients to have appointments; they can come in and meet with their attorneys or advocates at any time. If a particular attorney or advocate is not available, someone else will attempt to help the client as best we can. We travel to clients, we make appointments with care givers, and give clients rides to those appointments.

We believe in radical compassion. Everyone deserves to be treated with compassion, even on their most difficult day. One of my esteemed colleagues says that when someone is having a particularly rough time, maybe yelling or angry at you, it is an opportunity to exercise radical compassion. This does not require certain behavior. Radical compassion is accepting of people wherever they are. Radical compassion is not earned – it is freely given to all. Where possible, HAC extends grace to clients, allowing them to return after a bad day, or reopening a case after a client has disappeared. One of my favorite things is winning over a client who is rightfully skeptical of me and what I can do for them so that we end up able to work together and accomplish their goal. We strive to extend the same opportunity for redemption that we would like for ourselves.

We believe in building client relationships. The more our clients trust us, and the more they trust that we can provide a useful service to them without causing more harm, the more they will stay in contact, the more closely they will work with us, and the better the case outcome is likely to be. We often work on SSI cases for more than 2 years, and in the course of that time, we are privy to very sensitive, private information about our clients. It is important to us that our clients trust that we are acting in their expressed interest, toward a shared goal of getting SSI benefits.

We believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) – not as nonprofit window dressing but as critical first principles that are vital to the success of our agency mission. We strive to be a welcoming environment for staff and clients of all backgrounds. Our goal is to move ever closer to having more of our attorneys and advocates look like the clients that we represent, who help make up the incredible racial diversity of the East Bay. While working toward that goal, we receive trainings on DEI issues, including implicit bias and microaggression, fatphobia, racism-as-the-root-cause-of-homelessness, and more. We strive to be culturally humble in our interactions with our clients and each other.

We believe in excellence. Our clients deserve the best possible representation. Over the past six years, we have won 83% of the cases we closed. We keep appealing cases and building evidence for as long as it takes to win them. We have a thriving practice at the District Court level and a number of HAC attorneys have argued before the Ninth Circuit Court. We recently appointed an appellate director to make sure that we have consistent and winning strategies in federal court. We are a large enough agency that we have a real opportunity to impact the law in a positive and lasting way.

A HAC colleague recently won her client’s SSI case, getting him a stable monthly income and medical insurance. The client told her that HAC “care[s] about all human beings like their own brother. . . I had fifteen years on the street with nobody and now I am not on the street and I have you. The love is too heavy. I thought in this world love didn’t exist anymore, but Homeless Action Center showed me it’s there still.”

At the end of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Rudolph has made it back to the North Pole where everyone feels sufficiently chastised for their poor treatment of him and Hermey. Rudolph convinces Santa to make a stop at the Island of Misfit Toys and pick up the misfit toys to deliver to children who would love them.

While I, of course, believe that all misfits are worthy and deserving of love, I also think the Island of Misfit Toys gets a bad rap. The island is a place where the toys can bring their true, authentic selves. Just as the toys in the Rudolph story find respect and community on the island, HAC also strives to provide a sense of dignity, belonging, and empowerment to all of our clients, no matter their inability to fit in to the world at large.

I suppose the ending of the Rudolph story shows that misfits, in fact, are not really misfits, and can and should be appreciated for their uniqueness in all sorts of settings. In a world that doesn’t value people unless they can generate a profit – a world that requires humiliation to obtain basic needs, that turns its back on the most vulnerable among us – maybe the best thing to be is a misfit. I know I’m proud to work at this Island of Misfit Toys.