By Eliana Rose Swerdlow
I’m claustrophobic. I avoid elevators. I avoid driving in the center lane. I avoid crowds. In my recurring nightmare, I’m trapped and no one can hear me call out for help. When I woke up this morning, panicked and sweaty, I calmed myself down by counting every orange-colored thing in my bedroom. Seven. I stay in the right lane on my way to work at the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office. I count the semi-trucks on Interstate 80. Nine trucks.
My role as a non-attorney Client Advocate at the Public Defender’s Office is possible through Partners for Justice, a national program committed to zealous defense and advocacy inside and outside the courtroom. A Partners for Justice Advocate, I came to Yolo to provide wrap-around services to my clients because our nation’s criminal legal system burdens almost every aspect of our clients’ lives—their housing, their education, their employment, their health. Their present and their future.
Though I’m on the clock from 9-5, I worry most about my clients, many of whom are homeless, before I fall asleep and again in the morning on my way to work. Did my client find a safe parking lot to spend the night? Does the heat in her car still work? Does she still have one of my cards in case she needs me?
Once I get to the office, I take my time plugging in my computer, turning on my space heater, and throwing out old sticky notes. I savor these few minutes before I turn off Do Not Disturb on my work phone and see my clients’ names appear on my screen. As I listen to my client’s voicemails, read their texts, and worry about those who called but didn’t leave a message, the world is real and unsafe again.
I pull out a new sticky note to make a list of the clients I’ll call today. Five. I need to decide who I’ll call first, whose crisis is most urgent, whose suffering I can alleviate and whose I cannot. One wrong choice, and I might prolong a client’s suffering.
Today, I replay the distressed voicemail a client’s wife left me. I have her words memorized, but I could never replicate the despair and panic in her voice as she reads a letter from the Yolo County Public Housing Authority. My client’s housing has been taken away from him and his wife because of his entanglement with the criminal legal system.
They were set up to move into permanent supportive housing. Finally, their family’s chronic homelessness would come to an end. But as soon as my client and his wife felt hopeful for their future apartment and for the stability and opportunity that comes with housing, they got this letter. Public Housing fears my client’s “criminal” tendencies because of a felony charge from years ago on his record.
Immediately, I refer my client and his wife to a legal aid housing attorney. We need to appeal the decision. I’m about to call the next client on my sticky note when the housing attorney emails me back to request a letter from the Public Defender’s office. We have the opportunity to explain why my disabled client needs permanent supportive housing and how he is not a threat to the community. We can advocate for him.
I know my client, but I need to know him better. I need to know his suffering to argue how it is only further aggravated by homelessness.
I get in my car and drive out to meet him, but my client’s medical condition is so debilitating that he cannot leave his bed. His wife and I sit on folding chairs outside the motel where they’re currently staying. She tells me about her husband’s traumatic childhood and how angry it left him. She tells me how they’ve lived in a pick-up truck for years. She tells me that any interactions her husband has had with the police have been under the strains of homelessness — a state that leaves you much more vulnerable to the laws against urinating in public, drinking in public, or sleeping in your car on what you don’t know is someone else’s property.
She says she can’t possibly save for an apartment. She spends seven dollars every day on ice just to keep her food fresh.
My client’s wife is afraid to go to sleep every night. She worries that her husband will not wake up. He has already lived far longer than the doctors expected. I want to stay with my client’s wife, who is now crying, but I must get back to the office, put this information into a letter, and send it to the housing attorney. The longer it takes us to send a letter and for the housing attorney to file the appeal, the more likely Public Housing will give my client’s apartment to someone else.
I give my client’s wife another pack of tissues, as if that makes up for leaving her in tears.
Our office’s Chief Mitigation Specialist and my client’s attorney weave the details I’ve gathered into a formal letter for the appeal. When the letter is done and I’ve sent it to the housing attorney, I take a few minutes to call a case manager from another housing program. I haven’t been able to get in touch with a mutual client, and I’m hoping this case manager can pass on a message. He quickly tells me that he’s sorry. He tells me that my client—a man in his sixties, western Pennsylvania native, and lover of mountains—passed away in early January 2022. He had been exited from this housing program in mid-December, only a few days after I last saw him. A few weeks later, he was found dead in Sacramento.
I do not know what to do with this loss right now. I do not know where to hold it.
I get in my car and drive to the jail. Another client will be released from custody soon, and we’re making a re-entry plan together. He “gets to go home” in a few weeks, but he doesn’t have a home. Fortunately, he receives Social Security benefits, and he can afford to pay a modest rent. I’ve found some options for him. I know which one is my favorite, and I think about how I can communicate that to him through the dusty glass of the jail’s visitation telephone booths.
I clean the metal stool bolted into the cement floor and the heavy telephone with an antibacterial wipe. Its lemon scent isn’t strong enough to mask the stale air trapped inside the jail’s brick walls. I attempt to rid the plexiglass of the dust between me and my client. But this dust, I realize, won’t ever budge. So as long as my client is in-custody, he is veiled in a dust that doesn’t allow him to be seen for his full self.
I advocate for one apartment in particular. I think he will be happiest there. He stays quiet. He doesn’t look up. He is holding his head with one hand, and he’s holding the heavy phone to his ear with the other. He’s not listening. “I’m overwhelmed,” he says, “I don’t know where home is.”
I am embarrassed and ashamed. I don’t know what to do.
“Do you like dogs?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, “I have always wanted my own dog.”
We talk about dogs for half an hour. When he feels hopeless, he promises to think of dogs and his dream to have his own. I decide I’ll print out a photo of my dog and put it between the sheets of my legal pad for my next visit.
It’s usually a seven-minute drive back to the office. Today, it’s twenty-three. I get a carwash, and as the water pours over my windshield, I let myself cry for my client from Pennsylvania. Near my hometown. Found dead in the cold. Was he alone when he died? Was he scared? Did he know everything was about to end, and was that a relief?
I practice a smile as I turn the key to get back into the office. For the next two hours, I’ll be on hold with the DMV. One of my clients must pay over $5,000 in fees for failing to appear in traffic court before he can renew his driver’s license. But he doesn’t have the money. He doesn’t have a job. He needs a driver’s license to get the job he’s trained to do.
Every time we say “DMV” at the office, it’s followed by a sigh. Secretly, I must admit, I look forward to these calls. I let my imagination replay my memories, invent little poems and revisit conversations I had not long ago while I was in college. “I look at my life in seasons,” a professor told me, “I have done different things, but they are all connected by what I know to be important.”
The DMV tells me to call Collection Services, and Collection Services tells me to call the DMV. I maintain hope. I invest in hope. There must be a way to reduce these fines. There must be a DMV or Collections agent who will listen to my client’s voice and hear his despair.
In my time as a Client Advocate, I’ve learned what despair sounds like. It is many of my clients’ most loyal companion. And I am trying to wedge myself between them and their despair, so that there’s some room for hope to breathe.
Sometimes hope sounds like a little chime letting me know I have a new email. It’s from the housing attorney. She sent our letter to the Public Housing Authority. The appeal was successful! My client and his wife are back on the waitlist for permanent supportive housing, and I’ve already started imagining my clients in their brand-new kitchen with the beautiful ladles and colanders, with the pots and pans our office is gathering by donation.
I call my client’s wife to congratulate them on the good news, but the good news doesn’t mean anything. In the short time that she and her husband were denied housing, their future apartment was given to the next person on the waitlist. My client and his wife will likely have to wait at least a few more years before another permanent housing complex opens.
I know one family’s bad news is another’s good news, but I wanted this housing to work out for this client’s family. They deserved it, I tell myself, but doesn’t everyone?
Just a few weeks ago, I met with another client in custody. He needed to get his identifying documents together to move into that same permanent supportive housing complex. Given his mental illness, he couldn’t make the request alone, so I helped him get a replacement birth certificate and social security card—the only barriers to his housing. Today, he was offered housing. One spot opened up for him.
Through a mental health diversion program that our office negotiated with the court, my client can be released from custody earlier than we expected because he now has supportive housing. He has his own apartment. He can be safe from the vulnerability and victimization he experienced during homelessness, and he can be free from the cages of incarceration.
I can go home now.
The sticky-note with tomorrow’s to-do list is already made. A court appearance, a conference call with Probation, and a meeting with a new client and his mother only a few days after he’s been released from prison. I do not know what will happen, but there will be new voicemails, and there will be time to listen and respond to each one. For now, I will go bird-watching this early evening. I love my new binoculars. When I look through them at the white-crowned sparrow sitting peacefully on a sprig of wheat, I feel privileged, for a moment, to be inside his world and to feel close to what he feels and thinks about before he flies away.
Note: All client stories enclosed above were shared with their permission. Some were edited for anonymity. Eliana Rose Swerdlow is a non-attorney Client Advocate at the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office