“Nice boots,” I commented as we waited in the Mayor’s office for Lord High Legal Director Vytas V. Vergeer to be honored with a mayoral proclamation for providing twenty years of free legal services to the District’s low-income residents.
“There’s so much you don’t know about me,” Vytas replied. Apparently, this Bread for the City fixture and leading affordable housing advocate wears cowboy boots to every court appearance. He’s also been known to sport a cloak and dons a real tattoo of the Bread for the City logo — which he coined “the snowman” — on his arm. He never really considered himself someone who’d get a tattoo because nothing in his life seemed permanent enough to engrave on his body, but with this place, it seemed different, I learned.
As Bread for the City’s communications lady, my interactions with Vytas have mostly been limited to encouraging him to send me courthouse selfies. But now that he’s leaving us behind for some appointment as “Administrative Law Judge” at the “Office of Administrative Hearings” or whatever, I rushed to find out all I could about this mysterious lawyer who I could always count on for witty one-liners in his responses to emails asking for legal stats. I now share some of what I learned with you:
When a young, less hairfree Vytas V. Vergeer walked into Bread for the City back in 1994, he was planning to meet with Jeannine Sanford — our then-legal director and current Chief Operating Officer — to find out how he could put his legal skills to work for DC’s residents living in poverty. “I wanted to do direct services and wanted to go wherever I thought my services were needed most,” he says, “This just seemed like a cool place.”
Jeannine was late to the meeting because she was dealing with a difficult client, but she eventually got around to meeting the young lawyer and agreed to accept his help in the growing legal clinic. His first assignment? “Jeannine gave me the difficult client.”
She continued to assign him cases, and within months, Vytas was brought on board as Bread for the City’s first contract attorney. “It was the way he just jumped in and tried to make himself useful, the way he cared about what was happening to our clients, the way he spoke with clients — no condescension, providing information that would help them navigate a difficult system to an outcome that was their best option under the circumstances,” says Jeannine. She knew right off the bat that he would be an asset to what was becoming Bread for the City’s legal clinic.
He started out by taking mostly housing cases until he later asked if he could start taking disability cases. “Vytas worked hard — maybe too hard,” Jeannine recalls, “and he left us briefly in the early aughts to work in a policy position at a national nonprofit. But he was kind enough to let us woo him back in the fall of 2002 to help us get the Southeast Center’s legal clinic off the ground.”
Under his leadership, Bread for the City’s legal clinic has grown from 3 attorneys in 1999 to 15 attorneys in 2014 — serving more than 13,000 of DC’s low-income residents over the last 15 years. Our lawyers now specialize in the areas of housing, disability, and family law. He has played a key role in positioning Bread for the City as a leader in the fight for affordable housing in DC, and he has been an important advocate for tenants’ rights. “We’re always on our client’s side,” he says, “We may not always be able to fix it, but we’re always on their side.”
One of his greatest accomplishments was the launch of the Court-Based Representation project in which staff attorneys from Bread for the City and the Legal Aid Society take on landlord-tenant cases on the spot — providing full representation to people in need of legal aid, right at the courthouse.
Now, Vytas is leaving us…again. In his role as Administrative Law Judge, he will hear a wide variety of administrative law cases, ranging from rent level issues to unemployment compensation cases. He says, “My hope is that I can bring some of the humanity from Bread for the City into the judicial system.”
It’s bittersweet, but in the form of about 17 happy hours and going away parties, we say congratulations and good luck to Lord High Legal Clinic Director Vytas V. Vergeer! But in Jeannine’s words, “He’s come back once before.” Just sayin’.
And we think the departure is bittersweet for Vytas, too. He says, “Over almost 20 years, through clients, colleagues, and even appearances at court, this place has given me more happy memories than any person deserves.” Awww, right in the feels, V3.