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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