One Roof has identified legal issues as being a common threat to the housing status of many of our clients — or else, legal issues have perpetuated, caused, or resulted from homelessness. The tie between homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system is undeniable, and quite often systemic and unjust.
Every year, one of the most utilized services at our annual event, Project Homeless Connect, is legal services. We are pleased to say that because of the meaningful, life-changing services (but especially legal services) that we offer at Project Homeless Connect, Birmingham now has its very own homeless court. This is something that could not have resulted without seeing the very real need for this resource in our community through Project Homeless Connect, nor without seeing the drastic positive impact that access to quality legal services has had on the ability of our clients to get into their own home.
In the past year, One Roof has also aided in the reentry process for individuals with a disability who are being released from prison, and who, upon release, will have nowhere else to go. In the past year, we have started SOAR for Reentry, which aids disabled inmates in obtaining disability benefits so that they will not become homeless upon their release. With SSI or SSDI benefits for this overlooked population, we know that we can expect to see persons released from prison leading healthier, more independent lives, and hopefully lower recidivism rates.
We wanted to share this blog post with you, written by Lisa Borden, who annually has coordinated the attorneys who assist our clients at Project Homeless Connect, and is responsible for coordinating a regular homeless court (a court and appeals process specifically to aid people whose charges keep them from getting into housing). We appreciate Ms. Borden’s work, and this is a fantastic blog piece about that relationship between the criminal justice system and homelessness.
by Lisa Borden
During the time I have been managing Baker Donelson’s pro bono programs, I’ve been impressed and gratified to see lawyers and bar associations and groups across the country step up en masse to tackle some very important legal issues. The death penalty is an issue that has received a great deal of attention for many years, and more recently the focus on immigration has increased dramatically. Civil rights cases, including issues like marriage equality, voting rights and human trafficking have made the news, and helping veterans is a mainstay. I’ve gotten involved in many of these issues myself, especially death penalty cases.
But I find myself increasingly frustrated. Why? Because in nearly a decade of working on a daily basis with low income communities – homeless people, former inmates, people in rehab, but also just generally what we lawyers think of as indigent populations – I have come to realize that there’s a gigantic, over-arching problem that never gets much organized attention. Low income communities are plagued with unresolved minor criminal or quasi-criminal matters, like a persistent low grade fever that never quite clears up and saps their energy every day. Please don’t misunderstand – low income people commit no more petty crimes and traffic offenses than do people with resources. Lord knows they are charged more, though, and once charged they lack all the tools the rest of us have to clear things up. So they drag the charges and their consequences around interminably, a dead weight that slowly sinks them.
No lawyer to make it go away or give you good advice? Just plead guilty like everyone in the courtroom says, and be branded a petty criminal forever. Can’t pay the fine right now? Go on “probation,” add a monthly fee for being poor, and then get hounded for money every week. Oh, and we’ll suspend your driver’s license until you finally pay it off (plus reinstatement fee). Miss a payment or two? Can’t report to the fake probation office every time it is demanded because you have no transportation, no child care, or can’t get off work again for fear of losing your minimum wage job? Here’s a warrant for your arrest.
People’s lives are literally being ruined every day by these legal issues, many of which aren’t even that complicated. So why is it that there’s no massive, coordinated push by lawyers, no community of non-profits, to help? Best I can figure, it’s because of a lack of public understanding, and therefore public sympathy, for the victims of this particular plague. If the public does not care, or thinks the victims are to blame for their own troubles, then there is no political or PR upside to any broad effort to address the issue. The funding provided by Congress to the Legal Services Corporation comes with all kinds of strings, including restricting LSC funded organizations to working only on certain types of civil cases. Although there is a welcome new focus on public defenders, thanks largely to the wonderful Gideon’s Promise, there usually are no public defenders appointed to represent people who are charged with traffic offenses or petty misdemeanors that carry (in theory) no threat of jail time. Most private criminal defense attorneys have no interest in, or can’t afford to, deal with these kinds of cases. And overall, law firm lawyers and state and local bar associations are just not getting excited about this problem. It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t involve complex or high profile litigation. Worse, it involves helping people that the general public regards as undeserving criminals. Making their problems a cause with which we’re identified would be bad for business. It would play into and exacerbate the public’s already dubious view of lawyers. We want pro bono to make them like us better, right?
Recently, the issue of criminal justice debt has caught on a bit. Some nonprofits and law firms have become interested in handling the civil litigation needed to challenge some of the atrocious and unconstitutional practices being used in many jurisdictions. But somehow, someone has to figure out how to make the crushing burden on the individual caught up in the machinery of petty offenses a cause célèbre. People who have no resources need to show up for court and find that there is someone there to help them. People who have been struggling under this burden for years need to be able to find help to get fines remitted and warrants recalled. There are some real heroes out there, lawyers who expend valuable time and effort coming to the rescue of one person at a time. But there aren’t nearly enough. I hope that more lawyers, bar associations and nonprofit organizations will see fit to begin addressing the immediate problem of the individuals whose daily existence is being made so difficult. The arc of moral litigation is long, and many people simply can’t wait for it to bend toward justice.
by Michelle Farley
“That is such a First World problem.”
I’ve heard this phrase many times, but applying it recently to some personal circumstances made me stop and think about First World problems vs. Third World problems and how the statement relates to homelessness in our area.
When people say, “that is such a First World problem,” they are usually being dismissive of whatever the expressed (some might say trivial, or whiney) concern might be: like breaking a fingernail immediately after completion of an expensive manicure; being served a super healthy salad with far too many blueberries; or not being able to make a decision about which of your many shoes look best with your new outfit. Some people do allow these events to cast a slight shadow on a perfectly great sunny day, but can these “First World problems” truly compare to the potential Third World problems of death from starvation or from an easily treatable disease? Even though the United States is considered a First World country, I would suggest that some aspects of homelessness in our area have distinct comparisons to Third World conditions.
Manicures are generally considered a First World issue. Most of the people reading this can visit a salon (or a talented friend) and pay money to have his/her fingernails massaged, buffed, filed (amazing how much time people will spend trying to decide on a round nail vs. a square nail) and painted a pretty color (Brad Pitt was recently photographed with nails painted dark blue). Even if a manicure is not for you, you have that access if you change your mind. Pretty nails are probably not tops on the list of a homeless person’s list of “Things I Need Today to Survive Tonight.” People living on the streets can’t always wash their hands regularly (because there are so few public restrooms), so that pesky hangnail that your manicurist would quickly snip can become a major health concern if located on the hand of a homeless person. A hangnail becomes an infected finger, which becomes a staph infection, which may turn into extended hospitalization – a hospitalization for which there may be no insurance coverage (not to mention there’s no respite care to aid recovery and there’s a history of homeless clients having difficulty accessing health care in Birmingham). The next time you have a manicure (or any personal service for that matter), think about someone on the street with no ability to wash dirty hands.
Food choice in many instances is a First World issue. Most of the people reading this blog can request a restaurant to prepare a salad a special way, and can send it back if it is not correct. Most readers of this blog can go home and prepare that salad in any manner they choose. Most readers can choose to skip the salad entirely and go directly to dessert! If you live on the streets, your food choice may be limited to what you can purchase at the over-priced convenience store on the corner or what is handed out in the park (but please remember the can’t- wash- your-hands scenario from above, and read another blog post on the matter of public feeding here). I’m also almost 100% certain those choices will not include either salad or blueberries.
If you are in a homeless shelter, you probably have to either eat what the volunteers bring, or you don’t eat. Some people would argue that a person who is hungry will eat what is given, and that is certainly true in most cases. However, what if you have religious reasons to eat only certain foods? What if you have food allergies or a medically restricted diet? What if five groups of volunteers brought the exact same meals five days in a row (yes, that happens)? The next time you get to make a First World food choice, especially if that choice includes fresh fruits and vegetables, think about our homeless citizens who have no choice.
Choosing from a vast array of shoes is certainly a First World problem, but one our homeless community does not experience. There are kind people in our community who donate gently used shoes to our homeless service providers. However, people who are homeless generally walk a lot – and the more you walk, the more important it is for your shoes to fit. What if you have very narrow feet? What if you wear a very large or a very small size? I can tell you that well-fitting shoes in good condition are very difficult to come by in most of our homeless agencies. New shoes are seldom donated, most donated shoes are “average” sizes, and most donated shoes have already been molded to fit the previous owner’s feet.
The next time you have the opportunity to make a First-World choice about what pair of shoes to wear, think about those people who didn’t even get to choose the single, worn-out, uncomfortable pair they are wearing right now.
This blog is not meant to make you feel guilty about having a manicure or about owning a closet full of shoes. This is simply meant to offer information about the realities faced by the 1,329 people who are homeless in our area tonight. This blog is meant to point you to the One Roof website if you are interested in solutions to ending homelessness. The work that One Roof does to end homelessness in central Alabama is based on answering the needs we know exist in our community, and understanding where there are gaps in services; it means researching the best ways to make sure that men, women, and children in Alabama have a safe place to sleep at night; and it means that one of the most effective ways that you can end homelessness in Alabama is by supporting One Roof and our member agencies. You can end homelessness by supporting agencies who coordinate their efforts to fill the existing need, and who know what’s needed or missing in our community.
Making a donation to One Roof before the end of this year is tax-deductible, and it’s a smart step in the right direction for ending homelessness (and “third world” conditions) in the community we share. This blog is meant to offer you a way to get involved in ending homelessness in our community. Contact us! It is a First World choice whether you use snail mail, a land line, your cell phone, Twitter or Facebook. But no matter which method you choose, we hope to hear from you soon.
Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof.