ArchCity Defenders’ COVID-19 response began on March 13, 2020 with a letter to local and state officials advocating for those at greatest risk of serious illness or death from the virus. At least 38 partner organizations joined the letter outlining public health policy demands and recommendations on behalf of the unhoused, working poor, and people with disabilities and systemic health needs for a proper pandemic response from the community institutions they frequently encounter: courts; jails, detention facilities, and prisons; and police and immigration enforcement. ACD followed the letter with an online petition listing the demands signed by 2,126 people.
A March 26 letter followed as a coalition of over 30 organizations and medical professionals, asked the Honorable George W. Draper III, the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, to order the release of people from jails statewide.
ACD’s focus remains on its clients and to ensure as few people as possible—regardless of race, income, gender, legal involvement, or housing status—experienced life-changing events from the virus or from the community’s response to the virus and that policymakers are held accountable for the decisions made during the crisis. As we navigate this new world, our core commitment is and will remain to holistically serve those who need support most urgently—people of color, poor people, unhoused communities, people detained or incarcerated, and individuals and families in crisis—using our four-pillar approach: holistic direct services, civil rights litigation, media and policy advocacy, and community collaborations.
Holistic Direct Services
One of ACD’s first pandemic response projects was to assess each of our current direct representation clients to determine unmet needs, services, and/or resources interrupted by the pandemic; evaluate each client’s capacity to access testing and increased benefits due to COVID-19; and offer a steady stream of information and resources via phone calls and ongoing check-ins.
These conversations led to our team creating a user-friendly and plain language paper newsletter that we mailed to over 700 households. The newsletter included critical bulletins on changes to local and state policies, how to access important community resources, and highlighted the information that would be most useful and relevant in case they had limited access to phones, television, the internet, and/or transportation.
ACD partnered with the Dr. Bronner Family Foundation, Faith for Justice, and community volunteers to supply our clients with essential hygiene and household supplies to keep them safe, including the hard to find items not readily available in stores. We continue to collect and distribute basic supplies for our clients who cannot access them. We also have been collaborating with local grassroots groups and nonprofits on the ground helping unhoused folks to meet their basic needs.
In August, ACD filed a Petition for Writ of Prohibition on behalf of a veteran who faced the loss of his home after several court roadblocks and the violation of his due process rights all led to an eviction judgment during a remote, telephonic hearing. The petition asks the appellate court to set aside the eviction and provide the tenant with an opportunity for a fair day in court.
Systemic Civil Litigation
On May 1, 2020, ArchCity Defenders filed emergency federal litigation and applied for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop the displacement of approximately 50 people from tent encampments along Market Street in downtown St. Louis, located directly across the street from City Hall.
Along with Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP), ArchCity Defenders renewed a motion to reinstate a preliminary injunction in its Cash Bail lawsuit against the City of St. Louis, Sheriff Vernon Betts, the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit, and Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass to highlight the important and devastating changes brought about by COVID-19 for people in the Medium Security Institution (known as the Workhouse) and City Justice Center.
Media & Policy Advocacy
Stewarded the St. Louis COVID-19 Advocacy Hub outlining policy recommendations, updates, and political targets.
Produced a Covid-19 specific episode of Under the Arch podcast discussing the pandemic as it’s happening in St. Louis and with respect to racial health disparities.
ACD’s staff has written op-eds:
“Our Crisis” by Blake Strode as published on ArchCity Defenders’ Medium page
“Make Black Lives Matter: defund the police” by Blake Strode as published via The St. Louis American
“Advocates to Judge: Extend moratorium on eviction hearings as pandemic rages” by John Bonacorsi and Lee Camp as published via the St. Louis American
Published a #JusticeForThemAll series centering the lives of people killed by police.
Published #CagedDuringCovid audio recording series revealing first-person accounts of unsafe jail conditions and unlawful treatment of caged individuals.
Taking part in statewide housing rights advocacy to #ProtectMOTenants during COVID-19.
Continuing our tradition of providing #KnowYourRights education, we started to tailor online trainings to help those facing stressful questions about housing rights and options when representing yourself in municipal courts during COVID-19.
In late June, ACD supported another unhoused community at risk of eviction and heard first-hand experiences of those living under the overpass. Once again, while the City claimed to be providing services and resources, everyone ACD spoke with had not received the support the City purported to provide.
In partnership with local nonprofit and grassroots groups to contribute to the inclusive and comprehensive STL Regional Resources website. This site collects, curates, and keeps current vital information on COVID-19-specific information and resources, policy changes, local and national financial relief funds, resources for small businesses, housing, education, health and benefits resources, and much more.