THAT GIRL: Stephanie Lummus (St. Louis, MO) – Gentle caregiver, fierce legal advocate, and warm-bed-finder for the homeless veterans’ community in St. Louis, Missouri. Oh, and did I forget an amazing role model of grace and humanity-at-its finest to her beautiful children – and, for the rest of us, too. Be encouraged, inspired, and challenged today by one of the best of us.
Susan Carns Curtiss (SCC): First, I would love for you to tell me about the day that I was introduced to you (through your mom bragging about you in a National Facebook Group – lol, but – as you know, true). Please tell us what you were doing that day.
Stephanie Lummus (SL): I was attending a rally for homeless people in the City of St. Louis, MO. The organizers asked me to speak about the criminalization of the homeless in St. Louis and how their legal issues affected their ability to exit poverty. It was a cold rainy day outside the NLEC shelter.
SCC: Were you already familiar with the complexities of the homeless part of your community before you began working with them?
SL: My very first job as a licensed attorney was to represent homeless people. I have spent the last six years clearing barriers to homelessness. It can be as simple as resolving a warrant for a traffic citation, modifying child support, or applying for SSA Benefits.
The non-profit I worked for did not have any social workers on staff. Our job was simply to clear legal barriers. However, so many people came to us in need of other things….I sort of developed a knack for “street social work” as I call it. 🙂
The very act of being homeless in St. Louis is a crime. If you are sleeping outside you are charged with Trespass, Loitering, and Impeding the Flow of Pedestrian Traffic. If you are standing, sitting, etc…it is the same type of charge.
One cannot go inside to use the bathroom – as that is trespassing. If a homeless client uses the bathroom outside its a charge of Urinating/Defecating in public. Its a vicious cycle.
If one has mental health disabilities….it compounds the problem exponentially. Particularly in a conservative state like Missouri where we failed to expand Medicaid.
SCC: I didn’t ever realize, or think about it like that; it all gets reduced to a crime, and it seems like once you are homeless, the deck is stacked against you no matter what you do.
SL: So….I was not familiar with the needs of the homeless before I began my career in law. I had no idea how complex the issue was or how legal issues play a definitive role in whether someone can exit homelessness.
I actually sort of learned on the job. 🙂
SCC: So many attorneys have a similar experience when starting out – or even just when switching to a new area of law.
Learning on the job is definitely an engaging way to go through a work day – but, can be exhausting, scary even. You DON’T. WANT. TO. MESS. UP. How did you feel in those early days as you were improving your learning curve?
SL: I was with a small non-profit, ArchCity Defenders, who had just been awarded their first grant. They were able to hire one attorney–who happened to be me. I was told to get creative and think outside the box. Homeless clients would go to the Housing Resource Center to attempt to get into shelter and get denied. They would try to get food stamps and Section 8 housing and were also denied.
This is where I received my first lesson in how powerful the word “lawyer” could be. I walked into the shelter with my clients and helped them through the interview process. I waited 3-4 hours in the Missouri Family Support Division to help a client apply for food stamps. Some of what I did was not legal work…but the fact that the homeless person had an attorney standing next to them made all the difference in how they were treated.
It shouldn’t have….they should have been treated with the same level of importance had I not been there…but they weren’t.
I realized just by walking through the processes with my homeless clients, I could learn how to help others and also get my clients access to more resources.
SCC: What you said about, “It shouldn’t have….they should have been treated with the same level of importance had I not been there…” really resonates with me.It is sometimes equal parts maddening – and empowering – to see how our presence with our clients can make ALL the difference.
Are the difficulties for the homeless part of the St. Louis population unique to laws in St. Louis being particularly one-dimensional, or is this essentially true everywhere?
SL: I feel after working with out of state non-profits and civil rights attorneys from various locations, this problem is an old one. These laws exist in different forms, codes, and titles across the United States. The idea of criminalization of homelessness and poverty is not unique to St. Louis. However, St. Louis has a particularly unique municipal court system in St. Louis County which compounds the problem. There are 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County….and yet, there are 88 municipal courts in the entire state of Arizona. You can drive 5 miles and pass through 10 jurisdictions and get tickets for the same thing.
This issue with municipal courts was highlighted with the Ferguson protests and the resulting Department of Justice report.
SCC: The stakes are so high in our work as attorneys. What kind of advice would you give to other attorneys who are currently navigating how to to do their good work WELL with very little supervision?
SL: As far as messing up…absolutely. My clients’ lives are in my hands. Most homeless people develop a deep sense of distrust of others, some develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and – they can learn how to manipulate. Sometimes it makes the difference between living or dying. So…I had to build trust with my clients…prove to them that I was on their side. I also had to learn to look deeper, that perhaps a client was acting out because of a mental health illness, or acting grumpy and hostile due to PTSD.
SCC: Did you have or find a mentor to connect with, discuss things with?
SL: I have a village of mentors. 🙂 My first and best mentor, who is still my mentor today, is Susan Woods McGraugh, who teaches the Criminal Defense Clinic at Saint Louis University School of Law. As a law student, she told me that I needed to “own the courtroom.” As a student second chairing her felony trial, I learned exactly what that meant. She spoke to the jury on a human level, she wasn’t afraid to argue passionately to the Court on an objection. She moved through the room as if she owned it. It was the most impressive thing I have seen. Her focus was on representing clients with mental health issues – who were facing misdemeanor and felony charges without a lawyer.
She taught me how to fight for the most vulnerable, why it mattered, and why there was more to justice than just locking up “bad people.” It was also about mercy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Law plus empathy…she taught it, lived it, I have the utmost respect for her.
SCC: AGREED re the implicit value (to your client) of you OWNING the courtroom. You need to demonstrate that you belong there. I love that your litigation mentor was another woman…things are changing! What advice would you offer to young attorneys or students?
SL: I train law students at St. Louis University School of Law in my current position. Initiative and being a “self-starter” are highly valued.
I think my first advice to new attorneys would be as follows: knows your statutes, Supreme Court Rules, Local court rules are your leg up when operating as a new attorney. If you’ve done the research and know what the law is…then you’re probably more up to date then the judge and the attorney across the bench.
SCC: That’s great advice. Requires TIME, FOCUS, and READING.
SL: Secondly, If you don’t know, find someone to ask. I work with a lot of lawyers in my community. Generally, most attorneys remember what it’s like first starting out. They like to share their knowledge and reaching out for help to someone experienced in your field…even if its just for lunch or coffee…is very helpful.
Third, new attorneys need to remember that the practice of law challenges you to step outside your comfort zone. People generally don’t like public speaking, or conflict, or reading dense material…that’s our bread and butter. Recognize that you will be uncomfortable at first, and then plunge in with an eagerness to learn and a humble spirit…because you’ll make mistakes.
SCC: Did you find that your community partners were valuable parts of your education as a new attorney?
SL: Community partners were essential to my growth as an attorney. It did not do me any good to resolve criminal issues for a schizophrenic client without also trying to help get that person mental health treatment. So many caseworkers, shelter workers, service providers, they all taught me how the system worked, how to beat it if I could, and how to understand my clients better–which helped me be a better advocate.
SCC: To what extent (or not) was, getting to know your clients, a part of what was challenging, and new, for you?
SL: My clients have taught me so much about strength, perseverance, tragedy, and grace.
SCC: I’d love to know more about you getting to know your clients; about finding a personal and unique way to connect with someone who was living a very different life than you.
SL: The client that sticks out in my head right now…was an 86 year old homeless sex offender. He was sitting on a bench as I walked to work. He asked if I had some money as he was a homeless veteran. I didn’t have money but I had a coffee that I hadn’t drank yet. I gave it to him and told him that if he ever needed a lawyer or wanted to talk about resources, my office was down the street. He took the coffee and told me he didn’t need my help.
I saw him every day for three weeks. Since I was a Navy Veteran, I sat down next to him and told him about the ships I’d been on. He’d fought in Korea. The temps were plunging and I asked if he would be willing again to come down to the office and get some help. He said no…but he would like an ice cream. He walked very slowly and hunched as he was so old. He had a cane, a backpack, and a veteran hat. I bought him some ice cream and told him he could see me tomorrow and that I’d try to find somewhere to get him into shelter.
I took Robert* downtown to the shelter the next day with another attorney. He had finally trusted me enough to come to the office. The shelter found out he was a sex offender and rejected him. I tried three more shelters…they all rejected him. I pursued veteran resources, independent shelters…and no one wanted to help this man. I knew he was a sex offender. I also knew he had been charged with assaulting a seventeen year old girl…some 50 years earlier. I also knew how easy it was to make a sex offense charge stick – people who are accused are terrified of max penalties. I kept searching for resources and there were none.
Robert was so old, he could not move fast, he was susceptible to the cold. He came into my office after the first of the month with a bloody broken face. Someone had robbed him for his SSA check. It wasn’t the first time I would see him after the first of the month having been beat up.
SCC: I love that you saw Robert. You really saw him, that you were able to relate him because of your mutual service to our Country, and that you were using your law degree, and your community partner connections to explore and fight for options for him. These human interactions – lawyer or not…help accepted or not – are what create stronger communities.
SL: Finally….after three weeks of watching this old frail man curl up under trash bags when I went home at night…in the below-freezing temps….I got a lead on a shelter that would take him in. Except I couldn’t find him anywhere that afternoon. An attorney friend of mine and I decided to search abandoned buildings down on the riverfront where we knew Robert stayed. It was a little scary…at times I wasn’t sure if I’d fall through the floor of the buildings or someone would take advantage of the fact that we were in a virtual no-man’s land. I finally found a homeless couple who told me where to find Robert. I went five blocks over to an abandoned building. Went up five stories and found him laying on a mattress. We took him to the shelter that night. That client…changed me. Despite the stigma of being a sex offender….he was an old frail man who was dying slowly exposed to the elements. We finally got him inside.
SCC: Thank you for being willing to share his story – and, really, your story.
Oh, I’m curious, too – was he excited when he found out that you were a fellow veteran? Without presuming any sexist views on him, he certainly would have had no reason to assume you were one. 🙂
SL: He was excited that I was a veteran….my husband and I are both veterans….when we walk into a restaurant etc and he states that he’d like a veteran discount….they never assume I’m a veteran as well. 🙂
SCC: “Bitch, wanna see my ID card?”
Kidding, kidding. I never really talk like that. But…the voice in my head totally does. hahaha
SL: Right? I even got invited to a “Veterans Ball” because someone wanted to honor my husband’s service….they had heard he was a vet. 😉
I was in the navy so….the sailor mouth thing comes with the territory. 🙂
SCC: Honestly, relieved!
So, of course I want to know more about your work that day at the rally – the photo/bragging post of your mom that led me to you – have you done anything like that since? Is community organizing a part of your role in your community today?
SL: In regard to community activism….I’m always lecturing on something lol.
Recently I was training lawyers on what it’s like to represent homeless veterans pro-bono. What PTSD looks like when you’re trying to make a legal strategy….how oftentimes you end up trying to reason with the mental illness.
SCC: Do you work at/for a law school then?
SL: I spent four years working for ArchCity Defenders….first as a staff attorney, then I was promoted to managing attorney over eight other associates. My goal was to “infuse some empathy with the legal goals.” I did criminal work, civil rights litigation, family law, housing, and then took on any issue my clients had that I could help with. I would help a client find a job, connect to a resources, find housing, get food if they hadn’t eaten in days…whatever it took.
SCC: Incredibly meaningful, and also demanding work. I take it you’ve transitioned to other work now. How did that happen? What is your new role in the legal community?
SL: Being promoted to management limited my ability to interact with clients. I spent a lot of time handling Human Resources and mitigating squabbles among staff. So I decided to take a position as at Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry as the Veterans Advocacy Project Attorney. I help homeless, and low-income, veterans and non-veteran homeless people eradicate legal barriers to existing poverty. Our office is based in the law school although we are not officially apart of it. Its a Jesuit school and my office is funded by the archdiocese.
SCC: Ahhh, I see the connection with the law students (referenced above).
SL: So I get to train law students, give lectures, represent homeless people. I volunteer bringing homeless people to shelter on really cold nights.
SCC: Well, it seems like the PERFECT JOB for your experience, passion, and skills.
SL: I’m not a Catholic but I do like the mission so its a good fit:)
SCC: I love your mom, by the way.
SL: She’s amazing. lol
I was a little embarrassed when she put that picture up. Who likes pictures of themselves anyway, lol?
But she’s my biggest fan. And she was a single mother of three kids who worked usually three jobs. She’s my role model for sure.
SCC: GIRL, when someone asks me to speak somewhere, you better bet I’m getting photo-documentation of it to SHOW MY MOM. If she shares on a national Facebook Group…that can’t be helped. lol
I have another few questions about your work, and your work history.
Do you find that now that you know more about the homeless community as a whole, that your comfort level interacting with homeless folks is entirely different (even…just more comfortable/not afraid) than before you worked with them?
SL: My comfort level is very different than most. I’ve worked for years with people struggling with serious mental illness. I’ve probably put myself in situations that most people wouldn’t. Driving homeless people around…interviewing folks in homeless encampments…running around abandoned buildings…and going out to find people in the cold and putting them in my car.
I’m very familiar with the signs of a mental illness and psychotic break. I know (for the most part) when distance is needed. My mom sometimes gets upset with my choices. So I’m like…I’m an attorney for homeless people…you have to meet them where they are.
SCC: I’m willing to bet your kids get to see this too. They know you are caring for the disenfranchised. You see them.
SL: Ahh my kids. lol. I think having a lawyer mom is tough for any kid sometimes.
SCC: Your kids should meet my kids. 😉
SL: I know how to cross examine them….I make them go give out blankets on cold nights.
SCC: YEP. Mine know that if I see Tommy (a homeless vet in my business community), I’m gonna stop and chat with him/offer him a ride or a bottle of water. They are like, hmmm… Watching. Learning.
SL: The night I saw my son sit down next to a homeless man in a cardboard box and google the weather for him….I thought…well at least I didn’t raise jerks, lol…. I was slightly terrified that my kids would be jerks…I’m not sure why. 🙂
SCC: I have no doubt that they will be getting to know the “regulars” in their community, in time, and handing out bottles of water….in front of their own kids, too, some day.
SL: I can only hope. 🙂
SCC: Well, THANK YOU for giving me so much of your time tonight!!
SL: Absolutely! So nice to chat with you!
SCC: Any parting words you want to share with the GIRL ATTORNEY® Community?
SL: Sometimes working for the vulnerable…it can feel pretty lonely….you and your client v. the world. I’m so glad to connect with the Girl Attorney Community. Reminds me that I’m not alone…we’re all in this together. 🙂
SCC: We sure are…and STRONGER TOGETHER, too. Again, thank you so much for your time for this interview, your passion for your work, your thoughtfulness for your clients, your thoughtful children, and OH, your badass mother! Tell your mom “thanks” from me!
SL: Yes, ma’am!