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Lawyers come together to help homeless

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Five years ago, several women at a San Diego law firm with a passion for community service got together to discuss ways they could help the homeless.

They wanted to do something more than just volunteer at a soup kitchen or toss a few coins in the direction of a displaced individual. So they hatched a plan to tackle the problem as a group, using their skills as advocates to lobby policymakers, giving a voice to the voiceless.

The women dubbed their organization Girls Think Tank, and they’ve been raising funds and awareness ever since.

“We’re not a service provider in the traditional sense,” said Noor Kazmi, the group’s incoming president who has volunteered with the nonprofit since 2008. “The way our model works is that some of our most active participants are the homeless themselves. They’re the ones vocal about the issues they’re facing on the street, and they’re pretty much where our ideas for projects come from.”

Girls Think Tank actively encourages input from the constituents they serve, inviting the displaced individuals to their monthly “basic dignity coalition” meetings.

Kazmi said her group makes sure the homeless have a place at the proverbial table, which in this case sits in a well-appointed conference room at the downtown law offices of Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd LLP, where they discuss issues alongside attorneys, judges and other professionals.

“I think it really resonates with them and inspires them to be a part of their own solution,” said Kazmi, a contract attorney at Robbins Geller. Co-founder Rachel Jensen, a partner at Robbins Geller, hosted the organization’s initial meeting in her house as the group looked at tangible ways to help the region’s neglected individuals regain their dignity.

Girls Think Tank recently showed its clout when volunteers successfully lobbied San Diego City Council to allocate $700,000 for the improvement of public restrooms and clean drinking water downtown. To help with its push, Girls Think Tank volunteers surveyed the homeless, collecting data to see what needed to be included in the facilities that would benefit the homeless the most.

“When we started with the surveys, people were reluctant to talk to us about the shower and restroom facilities,” Kazmi said. “Even though we explained we’re a nongovernmental organization, a lot of people didn’t want to talk at all.

“You really have to have an understanding about a group of people who have been through so much. There is a strong level of distrust. You have to understand that and not take things personally.”

The group’s signature initiative is its Survival Backpacks project.

They’ve distributed nearly 2,000 backpacks filled with critical supplies needed to survive the coldest and hottest months.

Next month, Girls Think Tank will begin its summer survival backpack program, with the supplies consisting of sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.

While the group initially set out to help the homeless, Girls Think Tank now advocates for victims of domestic violence and other disadvantaged individuals.

Its most recent initiative is called Project AVOW, which aims to end violence against women. Kazmi said the group is working with police and government authorities to obtain anonymous data about which types of communities – low income, college students or certain geographic areas – are most vulnerable to violence.

They then will work with those groups, either through education or some kind of training.

Kazmi also said Girls Think Tank officials want to hold a free legal clinic for the homeless. Lawyers and law students will volunteer their time, collecting information from the homeless as they try to find out what legal obstacles can be alleviated through policy change.

“Another one of our goals is to identify leaders on the street – people who are taking an active role in their own improvement,” Kazmi said.

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