Were it not for the dossier taking over his table, Gabriel Chen might be mistaken for a regular urban professional out for an evening glass of wine.
“I’m not even convinced the complainant will show,” says the lawyer of the upcoming trial. Even so, Chen is nose down in the file. The dedication is impressive, considering his client won’t pay. Most of his clients can’t afford a home, food or clothing, let alone legal advice.
As staff lawyer for the Homeless Outreach Program at Calgary Legal Guidance, Chen is the only lawyer in Canada who exclusively represents homeless people.
Most of Chen’s clients come to him as referrals from mental health agencies or detox clinics or as a result of clinics he started at Calgary’s shelters. “Usually, advice clinics are in the evenings,” he says. “But if you’re in a shelter, you can’t really leave or you’ll lose your bed. So I set up regular clinics during the day at those locations.”
The clinics were so well received, they brought in more clients than he could handle – an impressive feat for someone who was once too scared to volunteer at a soup kitchen. It took him until his first year of law school at the University of New Brunswick to tackle that fear. By the end of his degree, he was head of the Poverty Law Society and organizing a conference on working in legal aid.
“Once I got my feet wet, it felt very natural,” Chen says.
“Yet, at the same time, I didn’t picture myself doing it. I’m fairly self-conscious and sensitive to criticism.”
Law school painted legal aid as an emotionally challenging profession with few rewards. Some clients are alcoholics. Others are mentally ill. Some are stuck in a cycle of abuse.
“A lot of those things can lead to you being on the streets,” Chen explains. “We need to be more tolerant of people who have trouble keeping appointments or filling out forms. There were things we had to do differently, but it’s nothing I ever learned in law school.”
Five years into his job, Chen hasn’t numbed to the hardships his clients face. Perhaps that sensitive disposition is exactly what it takes to do a job so few could.
“I was pretty unpopular and isolated as a child,” he explains, choosing his words carefully. “I know what it’s like for people to not want you around.”