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Alan Zhao ’12

39_zhao_alex.jpgAlan Zhao ’12, received a Eugene M. Lang Summer Opportunity Grant for a summer at the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) in San Francisco, Calif. Instead of a personal profile, Alan shared an account of a case he handled.

I expected it to be hard to wake up early every day, but the challenge of being responsible for someone else’s welfare is a much heavier burden.

It was early afternoon, my third day at HAP after two days of training. I walked into Ted’s office (Ted was my supervisor) and asked for an assignment. Ten minutes later, he came to me with a white folder in hand. “I think you’re ready for your first case. Settlement agreement. He’ll be here in an hour.”

Jim was a 50-year-old African American facing eviction whose case had reached the settlement stage. A trial was pending. He had been diagnosed with AIDs, and his doctors thought he suffered from a mental illness. Always at his side, or in his hands, was his chihuahua, Max.

Our first meeting was rough. Jim was clearly annoyed that I made him tell his story one more time. (Reading about how to deal with clients is one thing. Handling them in person is another.) We found common ground when I asked about Max. In stark contrast to his owner, Max never made a sound. Jim had adopted Max from the pound years before, and they had become inseparable. Max, Jim told me later, was the best thing in his life.

During the next week, Jim and I met nearly every day to work out a “conduct stipulated agreement”—that is, an agreement that his landlord would accept, one his social worker thought would work, and one he would agree to. We grew friendly as he came to understand that I was working on his behalf.

During every meeting, Max sat at his side.

Jim was shaking when we arrived at the courthouse and sweating as we entered an elevator filled with lawyers in suits. Holding Max kept him from panicking. But the settlement conference went smoothly, and everyone signed the agreement. Jim was clearly relieved.

We shared the ride back down in the elevator with Max and two lawyers. As the door opened, one said wistfully, “I wish my dog were well-behaved enough to bring to court.” Jim didn’t say a word, but he left the elevator with a smile.

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