Mission, Vision, & History
Legal Council for Health Justice (formerly AIDS Legal Council of Chicago) uses the power of the law to secure dignity, opportunity, and well-being for people facing barriers due to illness or disability.
We meet our clients where they are, as they are, tal como son, by providing efficient, personalized, and professional legal services. We listen to our clients’ concerns, assist them in developing a plan to address those concerns, and then put that plan in motion. We anticipate the evolving needs of our clients, studying the shifting forces that impact their lives, to ensure our service delivery meets their needs now and in the future. From our work with individual clients, we identify opportunities where education and system advocacy can be most effective to create meaningful, beneficial changes in our clients’ lives. We are most effective when we collaborate internally and with community partners to identify issues, craft solutions and change systems to benefit our clients. We hire and retain exemplary staff in order to ensure continuity for the agency, and we value maintaining a work/life balance for our employees. We are fiscally responsible, leveraging our resources and fiscal strength to efficiently provide immediate, specialized client service. We maximize our diverse funding sources to ensure the sustainability of our work.
Everyone deserves a fair chance to lead a life of dignity and opportunity.
AIDS Legal Council of Chicago was founded in 1987 by a group of dedicated volunteers as a response to the lack of legal services available to people with HIV who were experiencing the stigma and discrimination that was so rampant during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Since then our programs have evolved as the nature of the epidemic has changed so that today ALCC is one of the premiere organizations of its kind and a national leader in HIV direct services, education, and advocacy. In 1987, a time when the prevailing response to the exploding AIDS epidemic was fear, hysteria, and intolerance, Chicago attorney James Monroe Smith took a more level-headed approach. He recognized that people with HIV faced unique legal problems: workplace discrimination, insurance denials, confidentiality breaches, illegal evictions. School children were being kicked out of their classes. People with AIDS were falling through the holes in our nation’s “safety net” of public benefits; the syndrome was so new and misunderstood – especially in women – that government agencies weren’t properly evaluating disability claims.
Jim assembled a group of volunteers who were committed to making a difference in the lives of people with HIV. With backgrounds in law, health care and social service delivery, these volunteers came together and started the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago in the living room of Jim’s North Side apartment. When it first opened its doors, with a staff of only two – Jim and his secretary – the agency was among the very first organizations in the country devoted exclusively to protecting the legal rights of people with HIV, a mission it would pursue by providing free legal help, education and public policy advocacy.
In a few months, thanks to many generous donors, the Council moved into its first real office in the South Loop. The chairs, desks, file cabinets and folding tables were cast-offs from many of the city’s best law firms. The phones, with their wires hanging out of the ceiling, were donated by a grateful client. Jim hired a legal director. Not long after, he hired a case manager. This bare-bones staff organized a team of volunteer attorneys from all over the city who took on the kinds of cases that would set important legal precedents for the rights of people with HIV in Illinois.
Over the years, growing demand led the Council to continually develop new programs to keep pace with the epidemic and reach those in greatest need. In 1991, the Council opened a James Monroe Smith Outreach Office on the campus of Cook County Hospital where it could better serve uninsured individuals seeking care at its two HIV clinics. Many of these clients were African-American and impoverished, living in the south and west sides of the city. Four years later, with HIV beginning to impact a greater number of Latinos, the agency hired its first bilingual attorney and began working more closely with Latino-centered organizations, marking the beginning of the Council’s Latino Outreach Project. Currently half of the Council’s staff members are Spanish-speaking.
In 1997, when new advances in HIV treatment gave many people with HIV new leases on life, the Council initiated its Return-To-Work Project, which counsels individuals who want to rejoin the workforce on their rights as employees, confidentiality issues, job accommodations, and the impact that new employment could have on their Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits. The same year, the agency initiated its Family Options Program to counsel HIV-positive parents on guardianships and other long-term planning for their minor children.
Although the agency has always assisted people regardless of their immigration status, in 2002 the Council started its HIV-Positive Immigrants’ Rights Project to provide linguistically and culturally appropriate legal assistance to foreign-born individuals living with HIV. Recognizing that immigrants with HIV not only face unique bars to legalizing their status, but also often face singular difficulties to accessing justice, health care and stability, the Council’s staff underwent extensive training in the area of immigration law and made us the first legal organization in the Midwest offering HIV-specific legal assistance to foreign-born individuals with HIV. Today, we are accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals to represent its clients before the Department of Homeland Security. Since beginning the Immigrants’ Rights Project, the Council has served clients from more than 80 countries.
In recent years the Legal Council has launched education and outreach programs aimed at assisting women, youth, and individuals with mental health disabilities. In response to the lack of legal information for teens, the Council started a Youth Legal Rights Project in 2004, with paralegal Dale Green spearheading workshops for teenagers at schools and health fairs around the area. High-school interns from various Chicago-area schools have been recruited to help with the program and together they develop and present HIV-themed skits to their peers.
Throughout the agency’s existence, the Legal Council has delivered free legal services to thousands of people from every neighborhood in Chicago, every community in Cook County, and many places around Illinois, helped draft important legislation, testified before various legislative bodies, and trained thousands of providers across the state. In 2014, the agency added over two longstanding free legal service programs to expand our mission to serve two more populations: persons who are homeless and disabled (Homeless Outreach Project); and children with disabilities and chronic health conditions and their families (Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children). Read more about our exciting expansion HERE.
Today we serve hundreds of low-income people each year facing chronic, disabling, and stigmatized health conditions. We are proudly a United Way member agency with an annual budget of almost two million dollars and a dedicated team of more than twenty paralegals, attorneys, and support staff.
While the agency may have “grown up” from those early days in Jim Smith’s living room, it has refused to give up its approach to service delivery. The Legal Council responds immediately to calls for help. We have never needed to put clients on a waiting list. Council staff are available every day to address provider and client concerns. And every week, a Legal Council attorney or paralegal is rushing out of the office to meet with clients who cannot leave their home, shelter, or hospital room.
As we look to the future, we will never forget our past. If you have any questions about our programs, please call executive director Tom Yates at 312-427-8990.