ArchCity Defenders: Meet the legal superheroes fighting for St. Louis' downtrodden

ArchCity Defenders: Meet the legal superheroes fighting for St. Louis' downtrodden
Eric Fogleman
From left: John McAnnar, Thomas Harvey and Michael-John Voss.

It was a chilly November evening last year when Melvin Bain, a homeless veteran in his late fifties, had a few bucks in his pocket and figured he'd try to win a few more at Lumière Place Casino.

"When someone does something outstanding, they get to wear the cape."

"I used to be lucky," Bain says. "I'd go in with $2 and come out with $82."

Over the past few years, however, Bain's luck has changed. After losing his job as a cashier at a pizza shop, he fell behind on his child-support payments. One year went by, and, still out of work, Bain was convicted of criminal nonsupport and sentenced to eight months in prison. While he was locked up, his house burned down. Because Bain hadn't been keeping up with his insurance payments for the property, he left prison homeless.

Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Eric Fogleman
Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple 
traffic tickets.
Eric Fogleman
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple traffic tickets.

Eventually Bain found his way to an encampment along the St. Louis riverfront — just a few blocks away from the gleaming lights of Lumière. To Bain, it made perfect sense to take a chance on those couple dollars in his pocket. Unfortunately, the casino didn't feel the same way.

"They discovered I was homeless," he says. "And they don't like the homeless around there."

Bain was pushing coins into a slot machine when police officers came up and questioned him. Since Bain didn't have identification on him, he was told he'd have to leave the premises and was given a trespassing warning. A few weeks later Bain returned to the casino with an ID. He says he was again kicked out and issued a trespassing ticket. Around that same time, Bain also picked up a few tickets for panhandling.

He now owed the city of St. Louis $200 in municipal ordinance violations, not including court costs. It was $200 the homeless vet simply didn't have. Still, Bain arrived for each of his court dates and told the judge that he couldn't pay. And each time the judge told him to return at a later date. If Bain failed to do so, the judge would issue a warrant for his arrest.

A similar process unfolds day after day inside the city's municipal court: A recent Tuesday brought traffic hearings. And like Bain, nearly all of those in court this day are black.

"I don't have the funds today, your honor," says a short African American man with a tired look in his eyes and tattered clothes on his back.

"I lost my job. I can't afford it," a young black woman with glasses tells the judge.

A few defendants are able to pay part of their fines, which range from $200 to several hundred dollars. Nobody, though, is able to pay their entire fee at once. And the vast majority can't pay anything. They are given an extension and a new date to reappear in court. If they miss it, a warrant will be made for their arrest.

To date, there are more than 700,000 outstanding warrants for municipal offenses in St. Louis. And when tickets become warrants for the poor, the problems pile up. There's the anxiety that comes from fearing arrest and — ultimately — the arrest itself. Even a few days in jail can cost people their jobs. And losing employment often means that those living on the margins will fall behind in rent and face eviction or homelessness. It's a chain reaction attorney Thomas Harvey sees all the time.

"The municipal court system financially exploits people of little financial means," says Harvey. "It works really well for people who have some money. It doesn't work at all for people who don't. And I don't think [the government knows] how serious of an impact it has outside of the financial part. They don't think about the next step, and the next step, and this sort of domino effect."

Five years ago Harvey and two law-school buddies — Michael-John Voss and John McAnnar — founded ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit with a mission to rescue those caught up in this legal morass. But more than just offering legal aid to the indigent, ArchCity Defenders works to help its clients improve their overall lives, be it securing housing, getting drug treatment or finding a job. It's called "holistic advocacy," and it's a growing public-defense philosophy that's getting a shot in St. Louis.

"One of the pillars of holistic advocacy is to try to give people access to services all under one roof," explains Harvey. "And if you can't make them available under one roof, make access to services as easy as possible."

But that's a challenge in St. Louis, especially for a small nonprofit that often finds itself locked in battle with cash-starved governments — governments that have grown dependent on making money off the downtrodden.


ArchCity Defenders has a certain comic-book ring to it. Harvey is aware of this. So, too, is the mother of one of his colleagues. She stitched up a superhero cape and donated it to the office.

"When someone does something outstanding, they get to wear the cape," says Harvey, who had crime-fighting — though not exactly the caped-crusader kind — on his mind when he dreamed up the idea of ArchCity Defenders.

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11 comments
egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

And in this downtown nearly $400 million is being spent to add a couple of miles of walk, and bike paths up to the Arch, the Cardinals owners are doubling their profits with Ballpark Village and this is after the Art Museum spent $170 million for an add-on which includes a huge parking-for-pay garage. Some young lawyers would do a lot more for the poor and veterans and the homeless by filing suit against the perps who do such deals.

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.................and as for the BLACK / WHITE comments here,  i simply do not see the relevance when related to the economics because it has been long ago established that EDUCATION is the answer to ones future success in life (however that person defines the success that sustains them)

...............and any reference to founding fathers must include the fact that they were, in the end, all POLITICIANs, and to various degrees, with all the faux sincerity and self-agrandizing attitude that comes naturally with that pursuit, in it for themselves first - the only real heros are the ones that died in battle = period

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.................... "holistic advocacy"  misses the point that there is a industrial judicial complex that depends on these issues to exist so that judges retirement plans can be funded and LEOs overtime readily available so LEOs may remain current on their boat payments and the local politicians can offer their favors to build prisons and courthouses to their construction contracting cronies for kick-backs and bribes and of course there is the entire legal professionals fees from billable hours that grease the wheels of justice here in america (and of course even wall street has a hand in taking prisons public to the investing crowd)

just as we need to incite trouble around the world to keep an industrial military complex humming we need to have hobos and vagrants and miscreants being pursued and prosecuted for being poor and disenfranchised

this country gave up any claim to charity when we killed of an entire nation of indigenous peoples who were already here for thousands of years,  wiping out all trace of their language and custom and tradition - if we could make a buck from them by charging admission in a museum maybe a few would have survived intact

but luckily the poor offer so many sources of revenue and benefits for the industrial judicial system america will keep them around for a while so long as their utility remains profitable

valentino.martinez
valentino.martinez

First, KUDOS to RFT’s Ray Downs for a splendid story of true Super-Heroes – the ArchCity Defenders who operate here in St. Louis on behalf of the downtrodden – the homeless, in particular, which includes veterans. BTW--LOVE the RFT cover – it would make Stan Lee proud.


I have to say, for legal professionals who could be doing so many other things – but choose to defend the disadvantaged vs. a justice system that ostracizes and penalizes those caught in the system – well, you’re the BEST.You show that indeed – and in deed -- there is hope & humanity where, prior to your arrival, there was confusion, frustration and desperation.


@JamesMadison or whatever your name is – solving the “real problem” starts at ground level where the pain is.Ray Down’s brilliant exposé here is the sort of investigative journalism that flushes out the real problem – and he’s discovered many.A flip remark like yours suggests that the ArchDefenders might be part of the problem because they’re not solving the problem you failed to define.


Hats off to the ArchDefenders because you are SuperHeroes and, in my view, true Knights in Shining Armor taking on the dragons in a system that feeds on the downtrodden.Godspeed you and your important work at ground-level where the problems have festered

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

.

          When poverty is outlawed, only outlaws will be poor.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

It is good that someone will defend those being arrested for being poor, but the real problem is a city ordinance and a justice system that decides to fine those who do not have money. Offer them a day's work to pay off some of their fines. Clean the streets and sidewalks. Pull weeds. Find something for them to do other than constantly returning to court and telling the judge they cannot pay their fine - A fine levied against them mainly due to them being poor.


A superhero does not just keep doing the same thing over and over. They solve the real problem. That is my definition of a superhero.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, the the writer of our Constitution and freedoms. But less importantly. A middle name and a mother's maiden name for a bit of fun. Get a life. Stop living 240 years ago. The present is much more exciting. And playground bullying of making fun of names is so-so childish, well, you're making an ass of yourself for doing so. ;)

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison


I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

-- Abraham Lincoln

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, he did write the framework for their freedoms. Many slave owners did not care for the system, but it was the way of life at the time. Before slavery could be abolished, the owners had to be free of their English king. The slaves were freed later, but in historical terms, not all that much longer - less than four scores after the US constitution was adopted. Early compromise made it possible for a nation to reject slavery at a later date.


I am happy you can reflect back over two hundred years, and place your 21st century condemnation upon men who were trying to free themselves first. The benefit of hindsight is never to be underestimated in a smug and righteous attitude.


Without slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, you would be kneeling to a king, not living in a republic. Great men are not perfect, but merely humans born into their times and customs.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison ... he didn't write any "freedoms" for the Negro slaves he abused, bought, sold and fornicated with ... now did he?



 
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