A former attorney is building a national advocacy hotline for the country’s “invisible” populations.
At various points in his life, Larry Kahn C’69 GEd’71’s son has needed help.
Once, he was fired after being falsely accused of taking someone’s lunch out of the group refrigerator at work. Another time, he was about to be evicted from his apartment when he left the oven on and it started smoking.
In both cases, Kahn helped resolve the situation for his son, who has schizophrenia, simply by making a few phone calls.
Over the course of his long career as an attorney and negotiator, Kahn learned that other people with disabilities or facing different challenges need advocates too—often to fill what he calls a “tremendous gap” between what a lawyer can provide (for a fee) and what they can do for themselves. That’s why he runs a nonprofit organization called Help Now! Advocacy, which provides free advice, support, and negotiation to individuals in crisis. “A lot of times what people think is a legal crisis is actually not,” Kahn says. “They just need some practical advice getting through their situation.”
Since Kahn founded it in 2004, the organization has assisted more than 8,600 people, largely in the southern Oregon community where it had been based. But with most of the work being done over the phone—and with the COVID-19 pandemic amplifying the urgency of his mission—he recently decided to launch a nationwide advocacy hotline (855-4-CRISES), which he believes to be the first of its kind in the US. (While there are several existing counseling hotlines and other kinds of employee assistance programs, Kahn claims that there’s never been a wide-ranging advocacy hotline designed to help anyone through life crises beyond psychological issues.)
“I think the uniqueness of what Larry’s doing is that it’s not focused on one specific issue; it’s focused more on a process of negotiation and creating win-win solutions for people,” says Ryan Roth, who in October was hired as the organization’s volunteer executive director. Roth, who previously founded and sold the medical company MEDVAL, aims to scale up the technology infrastructure so they can have the capacity to take hundreds of daily calls, help Kahn recruit and train an army of volunteer advocates to take calls from their own homes or offices around the country, and raise enough money to build out a small full-time staff, including his paid successor. “There’s really no organization doing what we’re able to do as far as breadth goes,” adds Roth, who’s pledged to donate $50,000 himself toward a goal of $500,000 by the end of 2021. (For more information on how to volunteer or donate, visit helpnowadvocacy.org.)
Kahn has always tried to help others in unique ways. While at Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 1970, he taught at the old West Philadelphia Community Free School for students who had difficulty learning in a traditional classroom environment. The summer prior, he shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in the Mantua neighborhood of Philly with dozens of GSE classmates, meant to simulate the conditions their students might be in. Emboldened by the experimental urban education program, which also involved working with a youth group that summer, Kahn would go on to teach inner-city Philly kids the next three years. “By the time I finished teaching at West Philadelphia High School in 1974, students would refer to me as ‘Brother Larry,’” he recalls. “I took students on a camping trip to the Poconos overnight. I played football with them on the weekends and basketball after school hours. It was a great experience and something that broadened my perspective on things.”
Though he enjoyed teaching, Kahn left for the University of Michigan Law School and then moved to Washington, DC, where he worked as an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission and later a law firm in which he “established a reputation as being a negotiator.” In 1991 he started his own practice called Negotiated Solutions with the sole purpose of keeping legal disputes out of court—something he found to be unique at the time.
Not long after that, Kahn made a professional sacrifice by leaving the DC legal community to move to San Diego with his son, who he thought would be better off on the West Coast because of his disability. He continued to operate Negotiated Solutions for a decade, before a middle-of-the-night epiphany in 2004 led to him launching Help Now! in Medford, Oregon, where he had since moved. “People have said to me along the way, ‘If you had started this in a different city, you would have been much bigger at this point,’” he notes. “Southern Oregon is like the corner of the earth.”
Kahn initially ran the company out of his home and at hotel conference rooms, but was able to move into office space in Medford after receiving a grant from the Jackson County Health and Human Services department. Operating on a “shoestring budget,” Kahn and a small team of volunteers welcomed in clients who found them on the internet or were referred by social service agencies like the American Red Cross. Billed by Kahn as a “one-stop shop, which can be either the first or last resort for people in crisis,” the nonprofit has over the years helped clients find urgently needed housing and food, recover money lost in scams, take on unscrupulous merchants, avert foreclosures and evictions, settle disputes with neighbors, deal with creditors, and navigate governmental bureaucracies. And they’ve done it all, an organizational fact sheet states, “for the ‘invisible’ portion of the country’s population who, for reasons of physical or mental disability, age, infirmity, lack of education, lack of finances, etc., are unable to speak up or navigate for themselves when in the throes of a crisis.”
Although Kahn closed the Oregon office in September to move to an all-virtual format, his team has been particularly active over the past year through the pandemic and last fall’s Almeda Fire. Kahn was particularly proud to have recently helped a woman with a developmental disability from being charged with food stamp fraud in an alleged scheme too sophisticated for her to have concocted.
The organization doesn’t always resolve disputes. “Sometimes we give advice and support, and sometimes we find resources and service providers,” Kahn says, recalling a time when they got a woman into a treatment center after they smelled alcohol on her breath when she came in about a separate driver’s license issue. “If we spot another problem, we’ll address that problem,” he adds.
When it’s needed, Kahn will use his connections to find attorneys for clients who live in different locations. “We don’t have the hammer of litigation to resolve disputes,” he says. “We appeal to people’s sense of fairness.” But as he grows the organization, he’s hoping people with legal and mediation backgrounds will join the cause.
“It’s really about helping the most number of people he possibly can,” says Roth, pointing to Kahn’s work ethic as the biggest reason why Help Now! has churned forward for almost two decades ahead of its ambitious national expansion plan. “His drive is probably what’s most impressive to me. He had a pretty successful career prior to if you want to call it retiring into Help Now! From age 55 on roughly, he’s been working what I can tell is seven days a week. He just really puts everything he has into the organization and helping people. He’s got a huge heart for this thing.” —DZ