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Fall 2000
The Slum Buster
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At first glance Gary Blasi doesn't seem like a firebrand. With his Zen-like manner and casual shirt and sandals, the bearded professor looks more like a humanities scholar than a law school type. But a quick run through his background reveals a life of service to the disenfranchised.

Start with graduate school: Blasi dropped out of Harvard because he didn't want to be an academic. After moving to L.A., he hooked up with six others who decided to earn their law degrees the "old-fashioned, Abe Lincoln way," apprenticing themselves to attorneys. Blasi landed in a community-law office in Echo Park, rising from paralegal to partner, representing mainly low-income tenants.

In 1978, he took a job with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles because, as he says, "they would pay me to do what I really loved doing, which was using the law to help poor folks improve their circumstances." At Legal Aid, Blasi created an eviction-defense center and a housing-law unit and litigated the first tort cases against slumlords. But with the deepening recession in the 1980s, his focus soon turned to the plight of the homeless.

A skilled organizer, Blasi helped to forge a coalition of six public-interest law firms, including the ACLU, that became known as The Homeless Litigation Team. One of the team's major victories was a multimillion-dollar class-action suit to reform the welfare system and to remove obstacles that impeded the homeless from receiving help. At the same time, Blasi was becoming politically active as president of the New York-based National Coalition for the Homeless. When Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams launched the homeless charity Comic Relief, Blasi served as a founding board member.

After settling the lawsuit, he felt it was time to move on, to gain perspective and see where else he might be needed. In 1991, the veteran litigator arrived at UCLA.

"He's a terrific human being as well as a teacher," says Syd Whalley M.N. '80, a self-described politically active nurse who worked on the school report. "He treats students as equals. He looks at complex social problems and doesn't claim to have answers. It's a different kind of lawyering than other traditional law classes."

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