By: Samantha Miller, J.D. ’19
David’s* meeting with the housing coordinator was supposed to be formality. David’s longtime girlfriend, June, was seeking to add his name to her public housing voucher so the two of them could live together. The meeting was scheduled for December 21 and David was excited. He had been homeless for two weeks as he and June waded through the Section 8 bureaucracy, but they were hopeful that they’d both have something permanent before the holidays.
The meeting was an unexpected disaster. Immediately afterwards, David called me in a panic. “They’re saying I can’t stay with June because of my criminal history. They showed me a piece of paper saying I was arrested for drug distribution in 2014. I am so confused—I don’t know what to do.”
David’s confusion was warranted: he and I both knew he had never been arrested for drug distribution.
By the time David called me that Friday in December, I had been representing him on a criminal case for several months through the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute (CJI). I am a third-year law student, which means that in Massachusetts, I can represent indigent clients under the supervision of a barred attorney. CJI’s model of public defense is holistic; I do not represent David directly on his housing needs, but we know that a client’s most serious issues often extend beyond the courtroom. And of course, there is often no neat dividing line that separates a person’s legal matters from the rest of his or her life. This was obviously true for David—he was being denied housing because of a criminal matter from his past.
But what made David’s case so maddening was that the criminal matter keeping him homeless never actually happened. As his attorney, I had access to David’s entire criminal file; he had never been arrested for drug distribution, neither in 2014 nor at any other time in his life. As David panicked on the phone, I knew my job was to reassure him. “This is obviously a mistake,” I told him. “We are going to fix this.”
Within an hour, I was able to confirm with the court clerk that the arrest record sent to June’s housing coordinator was indeed mistaken. The clerk was apologetic and vowed to correct David’s record as soon as she could. But we quickly realized we wouldn’t be able to get the updated record to June’s housing coordinator before the end of the day. This meant that David would remain homeless not just over the weekend, but for at least the whole next week—Monday was Christmas Eve, and the housing coordinator would be out of the office until after the New Year. David was the victim of a clerical error and had done nothing wrong, yet he was the only one suffering.
There are countless clear injustices in the criminal legal system, but perhaps one of its most insidious effects is the process by which these injustices are treated as “business as usual.” The folks I spoke to at the clerk’s and housing offices were polite, apologetic, and competent, but they shared none of my sense of urgency. I was outraged that David was being denied housing, and my outrage was compounded by others’ lack of outrage. No one from the state offered to stay late, come in on a Saturday, or otherwise lift a finger to rectify their own mistake in a timely fashion. David’s homelessness was unfortunate, but seemingly nobody’s actual problem.
My work at CJI has prepared me for a career in public defense in countless ways; I have filed motions, argued in court, and negotiated with prosecutors on behalf of my clients. But the most important lesson I’ll take from this experience is to never lose my sense of outrage. Outrage drove me to advocate for David outside the courtroom—outside of my “area of expertise”—because homelessness (especially due to a clerical error) is unacceptable. My outrage also reminded David that I’m on his side, I’m working hard, and no—I don’t think what’s happening to him is okay.
David and June are now in stable housing, but it took longer than it should have. David’s period of homelessness reminded me that the criminal legal system can harm our clients in unexpected ways. In order to be effective public defenders, we must advocate for our clients creatively, expansively, and with an ever-burning sense of outrage.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.