By Donna Walter
St. Louis Daily News
One by one, St. Louis Municipal Judge Lisl King Williams called the seven defendants up to the bench Friday afternoon. Each man who stood before her asked for mercy. And, with the cooperation of the St. Louis City Counselor’s office, each man got mercy.
The defendants, mostly charged with traffic-related violations, have two things in common: They are all U.S. military veterans, and they are all homeless. The effort to assist the homeless veterans with their legal problems was part of a two-day “Stand Down” event Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.
“It’s a shame that anybody – especially veterans – falls on hard times,” said Drew Heffner, assistant city counselor. “Our office tries to help when we can.”
The help offered by Heffner included suggesting to Williams that she convert a former Marine’s moving violations into excessive noise violations and enter his sentence as “time served.”
“The courts have been wonderful about granting dismissals when they otherwise wouldn’t, so these folks can get this behind them and get back to work,” said Ted Gianaris, a partner in the East Alton, Ill., office of Simmons Hanly Conroy.
The Simmons Hanly Conroy attorneys volunteered to provide free legal services for homeless veterans at the Stand Down and throughout the year. Gloria Colon, an associate who joined the firm three years ago, dedicates about a third of her time representing homeless veterans, Gianaris said.
What might be a minor ticket to most people can snowball for homeless veterans. Because they can’t afford, say, an $85 fine for riding the MetroLink without a ticket, they might skip court. Or they show up at the wrong place. The fines increase, and warrants are issued for their arrest.
“It’s an impediment to them getting work,” Gianaris said. “A lot of these guys have a warrant that they can’t pay because they don’t have a job, and they can’t get a job because they have a warrant.”
“That’s where we come in, to try to get rid of the warrants and work out a deal so they can then be employable,” Colon said.
Among the 113 veterans looking for legal help Saturday morning were Michael Lee, who was cited for riding the MetroLink without a ticket; Reginald Chambers, who was cited for public urination; and Roy Castilleja, who committed no crime but was the victim of identity theft. The Simmons Hanly Conroy lawyers started investigating these cases Monday morning.
John Ammann, director of Saint Louis University’s legal clinics, brought a group of law students to the Stand Down. The students paired up with Simmons Hanly Conroy lawyers to interview the veterans. Between interviews, the students have the chance to pick the brains of the lawyers they’re paired with.
The lawyers met with 25 veterans on Friday afternoon, although only seven showed up for the 4 p.m. docket. Williams gave the no-shows continuances and scheduled them for the 1 p.m. June 13 docket.
More than 200 veterans registered for the Saturday morning event – where, in addition to legal help, they could get food, clothing, personal care items, haircuts and spiritual care.
Colon herself is living proof that, sometimes, a helping hand can make all the difference.
She had lived in Puerto Rico her whole life when, at 18, she decided to leave the University of Puerto Rico to attend school in New York City. The only fly in the ointment: She couldn’t speak conversational English.
Colon lived in an apartment with a friend until her friend’s grandmother returned from Puerto Rico. After that she slept in the hallway of the apartment building, depending on her friend and another resident for food until she found a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
An Army recruiting station was located right next door to the KFC. Colon had taken the test to join the military while she was still in Puerto Rico, so the recruiter, who was also Puerto Rican, was able to expedite the process. But he did more than that. He invited her to stay with him and his family and bought her everything she needed to join the Army. Colon’s 22-year Army career had begun.
While she was in the Army, she learned English, earned her bachelor’s degree and started taking night classes at the Saint Louis University School of Law. Stationed at Scott Air Force Base, Colon was helped out by a two-star general who gave her the permission she needed to attend law school — even during the weeks after 9/11 when she and her fellow soldiers were working 24-hour days.
“It’s not about me,” Colon said. “It’s not what I accomplished. It’s the many, many people who came together in my life to get me to where I am today.”