Shelby County’s ‘Street Court’ Brings Legal Relief to Record Number

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PHC volunteer Kristi Poindexter and homeless client, Orenzia Self

“I figured it’s Valentine’s Day, a day to share your love with other people.  So I thought, ‘Why not come?’ I met Mr. Orenzia, and it’s been so much fun!”

Before coming to Project Homeless Connect 3, volunteer Kristi Poindexter might not have imagined that one of her favorite Valentine’s days would be spent with a man who lives on the streets.  But as she walked Orenzia Self through this pop-up village of services at the Cook Convention Center, she learned much about his life… and something about herself.

“It’s amazing, because it could be anyone. We were talking about how we both went to college and that he had to take care of his mom, and that different situations in life can cause different downfalls,” said Poindexter.  “Sometimes, when you hit rock bottom, it’s kind of hard to get back on your own.  This is about learning to see yourself in other people. We’re a lot more alike than we think we are.”

Project Homeless Connect 3 was a one-day blitz of services for Memphis’ homeless population. Organized in modules throughout the Cook Convention Center, clients could visit the barber shop, get vision screening and free glasses, help with housing, driver licenses and veteran benefits.

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Kick-Off at the Cook Convention Center

Back for its second year, the innovative “Street Court” provided legal relief to a record number of clients. Street Court is a collaborative effort led by the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender and the Public Action Law Society (PALS,) a student-led organization at the University of Memphis School of Law.

More than 40 clients received relief from court fines and costs.  That’s double the number served at last year’s Street Court.  This number is in addition to the 55 people who did not qualify for court, but were able to receive other legal counsel. In total, nearly 100 people were given legal assistance at this year’s event.

“We were able to resolve more than twice as many criminal cases this year,” said Street Court organizer and Shelby County Public Defender, Josh Spickler.  “This represents twenty more people who can put criminal court debt and arrest histories behind them. These things are barriers to housing, benefits, and employment. Once removed, a person can more easily move from the streets and toward a more productive life.” 

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Public Defender Josh Spickler representing a client before Judge Karen Massey

Street Court brought together public defenders and prosecutors, Judge Karen Massey, the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court Clerk’s office, attorneys from top Memphis law firms, members of the legal aid community, and PALS volunteers from the U of M School of Law.  

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U of M law school students, private attorneys and members of the Memphis legal aid community interviewed potential clients and offered counsel on civil cases.

This is the third year Shelby County assistant public defender Amy Mayne has volunteered for Project Homeless Connect. 

“I think people don’t realize how many barriers there are out there,” said Mayne. “Many believe, ‘Well, if he would just get up off the street and get a job, it would be fine.’ The truth is, a lot of homeless people just don’t even know where to start. It can be really depressing, even debilitating, to owe all of these fines and costs that you feel you are never going to be able to pay. I think many people just don’t realize how many different areas the poor need help in, and how much work there is to get them through the process.” 

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Shelby County public defenders, Judge Karen Massey, members of the General Sessions Criminal Court Clerk’s Office, private attorneys, and U of M law school students filed hundreds of motions in this one-day criminal court.  

The project has been so successful that the U of M Law School student organization, PALS, is adding a Street Court to its upcoming Alternative Spring Break (ABS).  The week-long program is the only law-focused alternative spring break in the country that recruits students from across the country.  It will take place March 11th – 15th and will also be a partnership with the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.

Chris Martin, PALS president and student organizer for Street Court, says this was a natural addition to ABS. “It gives students a chance to do criminal defense, working with clients who need it most.” 

Martin, recent recipient of the Tennessee Bar Assocation’s Volunteer Law School Student of the Year, says this kind of work is crucial to the development of the next generation of law students.

“I hope this leads to them seeing themselves as attorneys who have to give part of their time to clients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford legal representation.” 

Project Homeless Connect is organized by the Community Alliance for the Homeless.  Read more about the work they do and about the recent drop in Memphis’ homeless population in this article from the Commerical Appeal.

 

JustCity.org brings you stories of justice from Memphis… and beyond.

A blog by the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.

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