02/27/2013 03:53 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Some Veterans Die Waiting for Benefits, One Man Lives to Help Them

Shortly before Christmas 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting released data revealing, "Long wait times are contributing to tens of thousands of veterans being approved for disability benefits and pensions only after it is too late for the money to help them." To be specific, 19,550 veterans died last year waiting for benefits to which they were entitled. The Veterans Administration then paid $437 million to the survivors of these dead patriots.

It's not just that the money came too late for the veteran to live on -- some relatives argue -- the denial of benefits could have precipitated an untimely demise as those who served their country were unable to access accommodations and treatments that would have prolonged their lives.

Charleston, South Carolina's Homeless Justice Project (HJP) brochure states, "Before the project began, adequate legal services for people who are homeless were not readily available to the Charleston area." And more than half their clients -- everyone of whom is homeless -- is a United States Veteran.

Legal services for the economically disadvantaged are offered with varying degrees of success all across the nation. But the Homeless Justice Project offered at Crisis Ministries is unique because it has an on staff full-time attorney dedicated to assuring that -- among other things -- the none of their veterans die waiting for the benefits they've got coming to them.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's point in time survey for 2012 put the number of homeless veterans on the street on one night in January at 62,619. That is the number of veterans willing to be counted on that particular night. Remembering that each of these vets began his or her military career learning to hide from their enemy, one can only imagine what percentage of homeless vets actually hung out in unfriendly environs waiting to be counted.

Even a person with no idea of the lengths a homeless justice project must go to in order to get a vagabond his or her earned government compensation, one realizes that it takes an awful lot of lawyer time to represent the low ball number of 62,000 veterans. No wonder nearly 20,000 -- homeless or otherwise -- died waiting. In Charleston alone, 60 homeless veterans are receiving legal assistance at any given time.

Books are written about the lawyers who dedicate pro-bono time to helping the indigent. One such book put out by the American Bar Association -- Lawyers Working to End Homelessness -- is a collection of stories about the good work being done. But none of the stories tells a tale like the one going on in Charleston.

Less than a decade ago, Abby Saunders and the Charleston Bar Association worked with dozens of volunteer lawyers to help the poor. In the course of their work with the local shelter, Crisis Ministries, they came in contact with Jeff Yungman. Yungman was a social worker toiling daily to help people regain the dignity that comes with having a home - whether or not a new home was on the horizon. Yungman realized that many of the folks he came in contact with were homeless because they hadn't gotten what was justly theirs. Saunders, a local attorney, knew that lawyers could more easily navigate the system on their behalf. The job helping the poor get justice in Charleston was exactly what it was in every other community -- with or without a shelter -- enormous. In a perfect world, the organization would have a full time attorney. But no lawyer in town was available to pitch their practice and go to work in a homeless shelter. So at 50, Yungman -- the social worker -- went to law school.

If Kurt Vonnegut had even been in touch with his inner John Wayne, he'd have been Jeff Yungman. All Vonnegut in his love of social justice and keen understanding of human nature, Yungman is legendary Wayne in his inability to see obstacles or fear outcomes. While it's the Vonnegut side that greets his clients, it's his Wayne side that keeps charging the next hill. Not yet 60, Yungman's accomplished a lot since he passed the bar. Drug court, homeless court and vet court are now working to streamline the justice system for folks whose biggest crimes are largely circumstances beyond their control. Saunders says that Yungman's helped keep a lot of vets out of jail that would have gone to jail otherwise. Saving the vet, but saving the taxpayers as well. An inspiration to any grown up considering going back to school, Saunders says that a lot of vets have gone to law school because of Yungman as well.

Continue picturing the unflappable Duke and you'll know that the list of Yungman's accomplishments are too numerous to mention. But possibly the greatest gift he's given his clients -- aside from keeping them from being among the statistic of vets who die waiting - is that he sees the homeless where they live. Saunders, keenly understanding the humiliation felt by the homeless and sitting at the Crisis Ministries conference table where Yungman practices law, asked, "Do you want to walk through that door," referencing downtown lawyers' offices, "after you've spent the night here?"