By Helen Hill, Street Roots
The homeless community has long been the target of police action and prosecution, often creating an insurmountable backlog of tickets and non-violent misdemeanors that can effectively shut people off from safe housing, education and jobs, and perpetuating cycles of poverty.
Street Roots, the Metropolitan Public Defender and the Portland Housing Bureau recently collaborated on a pilot project aimed at helping vendors attain a clean slate. Four attorneys, a paralegal student intern with Portland Community College and a legal assistant visited Street Roots in April for the inaugural clinic dubbed ‘Expungement Palooza’.
“We look up their records and see if they are eligible for expungement today,” said Nikki Thompson, a staff attorney in the community law division of MPD. “If they are not, we will let them know at what date in the future they are eligible. If they are eligible today, we will help them do their paperwork, notarize their paperwork, do their fingerprints and lead them through the process of how to file for expungement.
“Many people find that having a criminal record is such a barrier for safe housing, and then there’s the stigma. A lot of people feel that having a criminal record attached to them is just not who they are now. This helps them feel like they are the person they are today.”
The laws surrounding expungement are complex and difficult to sort through, according to Thompson. However, she noted that Oregon has progressive and expansive expungement options for people looking to clear their record.
Meeting with an attorney can be intimidating, and talking to a stranger about a legal situation can be embarrassing. To help create a welcoming atmosphere, MPD supplied the office with a steady stream of pizza for the vendors, which was much appreciated by all.
Judging by these reactions from the dozens of vendors who participated in the clinic, the day was a roaring success.
“I have had a mark on my record since 1991 and it has cost me housing, it has cost me jobs and these people got rid of it for me today. I came in, signed some paperwork and showed that I haven’t been in trouble for 10 years. It’s gone. I feel ecstatic. Literally, I feel giddy.” said Vern, a Street Roots vendor.
Another vendor, Vince, also felt it was a day well spent. “I brought a few people here to take care of little misdemeanors, which can really get in the way of housing and employment. Mentally, you don’t even know what’s going to affect you. So maybe having that clean slate is like a clean bill of health. It’s an attempt at starting over, which we are all trying to do. I think its super important, it should be done as often as possible,” he said.
Note: To avoid undermining their work to expunge their records, Street Roots agreed not to use the vendor’s last names.