As the pro bono coordinator for the Homeless Action Center in Berkeley, Charles Bruce, ’10, navigates a complex web of needs, bridging two cultures that have little in common.
Assuming the role nearly two years ago, Bruce solicits pro bono representation for homeless clients seeking disability benefits. It’s no simple process to match clients who cope with mental illness and trauma to private attorneys who are used to negotiating deals in a boardroom or litigating cases in a courtroom. The fact that disability benefit applications take more than a year to work their way through a bureaucratic eligibility process doesn’t help.
“Some cases have been hard: attorneys leave the firm,” Bruce said. “I’m trying to work out the wrinkles and make it easy for attorneys while getting the client all the attention they deserve.”
Bruce has lots of insights about the needs of clients who live on the margins, since he worked as a staff attorney with the Homeless Advocacy Center for nearly five years before taking his current job.
“It can be hard to get basic information. Who they go to for primary care can be a 15-minute story,” he said. “I used a lot of skills I learned in law school to be able to redirect people. Sometimes, just giving them time and listening helps. A lot of times, people feel that they aren’t listened to.”
Bruce said he was well positioned for this role after taking the Interviewing, Negotiation and Counseling course in law school, which helped him see that a good counselor will engage in an open conversation instead of rattling off a predetermined question list.
“Oftentimes, if you go through your list of questions, you’re going to miss really important pieces of information,” he said. “They’ll bring up things it would not have occurred to me to ask about. “
On the other side of the equation, Bruce has founding himself cajoling attorneys from a leading Silicon Valley firm that signed onto a pilot pro bono project with the Homeless Action Center to endure a process that could not be more different from the transactional practice they know so well.
“Folks were really uncomfortable with administrative hearings,” he said.
Some of the skills Bruce has found useful came from his field clinic at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, where he worked with a disabled and sometimes traumatized clientele. His co-op placement at Sunoco required him to conduct research that helped him understand how to apply legal principles to a diversity of circumstances at hand.
In law school, he had intentionally sought out diverse experiences to acquaint himself with the range of options in the legal profession.
“Growing up, I only knew one lawyer,” he said, of his childhood in Dos Palos, a tiny city 40 miles northeast of Fresno.
Deep connections to family lured Bruce back to California after he completed his JD and strengthened his conviction that he should become an advocate for a population that desperately needs them.
The very first disability case he handled was for his own mother, who needed disability benefits after falling seriously ill.
“I understand the struggles that our clients go through on a personal level,” he said. “I was really nervous about it. I understand how much people depend on these benefits.”
Years later, Bruce is delighted to make the reverse commute every day from his home in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District to his office in Berkeley.
The Homeless Advocacy Center, the largest organization of its kind in California, has doubled in size since he arrived in 2011. And he feels good about all the heavy lifting he does to help people get a roof over their heads.
“It’s a great experience,” he said.