Grassroots lawyer

'Street Democracy' founder assists poor and homeless

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Jayesh Patel was born in Detroit in 1977. Thirty years later, the Wayne State University alum returned to the Motor City to establish "Street Democracy," a legal services and advocacy organization focusing on legal issues related to poverty.

The third child of immigrants from India, Patel has a keen awareness of being considered an outsider. On one side his parents reinforced that difference as a means of preserving their cultural heritage. On the other were occasional small acts of ignorance - "Oh you're Indian, What tribe?" - and outright racism that reaffirmed that division.

"I had an incredible childhood, but every once in a while, society reminded you that you were a little different," he says.

In his senior year of high school, Patel was charged with possession of a fake ID.

"At first I thought that if only I was white, I might have escaped with a warning," he says. "But because I believed the system was fundamentally fair, I figured I'd be alright. The judge would take the time to hear me out, to see that I was a fundamentally good kid who stupidly just made the first big mistake of his life."

Walking into the courthouse and standing before the judge without an attorney, Patel finally realized how much trouble he was in.

"Feeling so ashamed, so intimidated, and so utterly powerless, I simply pled guilty and asked for mercy - none came. And then, in a blink of an eye, it was over."

Patel thought court-assessed fines and a summer-long grounding would be the extent of punishment. However, notices of additional fines assessed by the Secretary of State and a suspension of his driver's license arrived by mail.

"I did wrong, no question. But being hit with more penalties after the fact and without warning struck me as wrong too," he says. "I was lucky I had friends and family to help me navigate through that rough patch. Most people aren't so lucky."

While studying the legal history of U.S.-Native American relations as a student at Georgetown University Law Center, Patel was reminded of those feelings of injustice. Among the readings was a letter written by then-President Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, then-territorial governor of Indiana, about the federal plan to, through a system of trade policies and contracts, "get clear of this pest without giving offense or umbrage to the Indians" and, if that did not work, use force to push the Indians across the Mississippi.

"So I'm sitting there learning about a people, who were confused for me as I was for them, a people who were, by law and war, systemically targeted to the point of genocide," Patel says. "I start thinking about the fact that just my having a seat at one of America's top law schools, as a full citizen no less, is a privilege given to me by the struggle of so many before me. And then I think about the next guy who makes a stupid mistake, but doesn't have the friends or resources or attorney to help him get through the storm. After that, I just couldn't go back to pretending I'm not in a position to do something about it."

After working at a Washington, D.C. nonprofit focused on the economic stability of prisoners returning to their communities and at a traditional legal aid organization, Patel set out to create an organization that attempts to combine economic and personal stability with legal assistance.

He called Joe Micallef, who ran St. Leo's Soup Kitchen, to ask if he could set up a legal clinic. Since the kitchen had other service providers there and it was accessible to Patel's target population, it seemed a logical fit.

"But I learned quickly that while meeting clients where they are sounds great in theory, I was spending way more time chasing clients than doing actual legal work," he says. "Sometimes clients aren't ready to take that next step. Something was missing."

Around that same time, Patel founded Talati & Patel with childhood friend Satyam Talati. Their practice focuses on providing general counsel to primarily small- to medium-sized businesses. Patel credits that work, deal making toward a common goal for the mutual benefit of all parties, with changing his approach to his nonprofit work. "I asked the question, if Street Democracy viewed the government, the courts as partners rather than adverse parties, if we worked together, how much more could we do to improve the lives of the homeless and poor?"

Street Democracy began researching alternative justice models, settling on the homeless court run by Judge Elizabeth Hines in Ann Arbor, which conditions legal relief on the personal development of participants.

"Judges Cylenthia LaToye Miller and Katherine Hansen immediately understood how much a court like this was needed in Detroit and stuck their professional necks out to help push this concept forward even before we had the data to prove that it worked," Patel says.

After two years of collaborative planning with number partners and obtaining the necessary approvals, Street Outreach Court Detroit, where Street Democracy serves as lead defense counsel, held its first session in June 2012. In SOCD, the court accepts as payment, in lieu of money, the time participants spend addressing the root causes of their homelessness.

"Because of this court, the homeless have a genuine opportunity to permanently escape the poverty trap," Patel explains.

According to Patel, the success rate has been astounding. Based on six months post-graduation surveys of 2012 and 2013 graduates, 97 percent were in stable housing situations, 91 percent had stable sources of income, 90 percent had no contact with the criminal justice system, and 100 percent had no new misdemeanor or felony charges.

Patel estimates that in nearly three years of operation, SOCD has saved taxpayers between $75,000 and $150,000 by combining cases into a single adjudication and societal savings from reduced crime rates. Additionally, SOCD resulted in an additional $7,900 into the city's coffers in the form of new parking settlements from formerly uncollectible people.

Surprisingly these savings come at no cost to taxpayers, Patel notes.

"Judges Miller and Hansen cover each other's regular docket on SOCD court dates so no regular court business is disrupted, and city attorney Jacob Schwartzberg donates countless lunch hours to discuss SOCD clients without interrupting courtroom duties plus, our graduates are now themselves taxpayers."

Street Democracy applies this same type of analysis to its own internal operations.

"When we received a grant from Capuchin Soup Kitchen to hire an attorney to increase the capacity of SOCD, we decided to measure our effectiveness by asking ourselves, Did we achieve more than had we simply given the money directly to the clients? By that simple metric, the work of Patti Carey, our new attorney, results in a more than 6:1 direct dollar benefit for our clients," Patel explains. "A more comprehensive metric that includes indirect and long-term benefits would undoubtedly push this ratio even higher."

Street Democracy is developing new programs in business development and affordable housing that aim to mirror the success and collaborative structure of SOCD.

"I know it's super ambitious, but if we can use housing and business development to stabilize the economic situations of the homeless, underemployed, and working poor, we could attack homelessness and poverty at its source," he says.

Patel also is an adjunct professor and director of Michigan State University College of Law's Food Law Clinic, which is currently working with Detroit's Eastern Market to enhance the market for local produce and food products.

"I love teaching students because they are so optimistic, so energized to make a difference it's contagious," he says. "And working with Eastern Market, that difference has the potential to be huge for the city and the region."

Patel feels he is very fortunate to be able to his passion for this work.

"I have a wife, Neethi, who wants me to do what I love regardless of the paycheck it brings, kids, Shaan and Jyoti, who don't complain about having to settle for just five minutes with me before bedtime, and parents and in-laws who help us juggle our household all while holding down their own," he says.

"But I'm also lucky to work with so many great people people, who like Detroiters in general, are hearty, salt-of-the-earth, friendly, unpretentious, got your back type of people who every day work their asses off trying to make someone else's tomorrow a little better than it was today," he says. "Honestly, I'm having so much fun, it almost doesn't feel like work anymore. Almost."

Published: Thu, Mar 12, 2015

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