Justice for all

Salt Lake City attorney serves the homeless

 

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Name Jensie Anderson
Age 45
Hometown Salt Lake City, Utah
Favorite hangout Under a highway viaduct
Alter ego Soccer Mom
She says "The justice system is one that I really feel like is made for the rich. And if you're poor, and especially if you're homeless ... there's not a lot of access to justice services."

On any given Sunday in Salt Lake City, a crowd of homeless people -- mostly men, but also some women and families -- congregates under a highway viaduct for free breakfast. As they wait for a church group to dole out the food, an elderly gentleman with a crooked smile and a torn straw hat shows off his two small dogs, whose tricks draw a circle of admirers. Christian music blares from giant speakers; each person holds a Styrofoam plate with "Jesus is Lord" and a queue number written on the bottom.

The plates don't offer the only hand-lettered message of salvation here. Not far away, a card table sports a sign, taped to a beat-up leather briefcase, that reads "Free legal advice and referrals." A motley band of volunteer attorneys and law students mills around the table, drinking coffee, waiting to answer questions. For more than 15 years, University of Utah law professor Jensie Anderson has coordinated this outreach effort, and she's here every other weekend, in rain or snow or blazing summer heat. She started during law school -- one of her professors created the program -- and took over the reins just three years after its birth.

Anderson -- casual in capris and sandals, her wireframe glasses slipping down her nose -- and her jeans-clad crew field more than 20 questions this morning. Two buddies, Mark and James, want to know if James can get a passport even though he has a felony conviction. "What kind of an indigent thinks he can sit on a train platform in the free-fare zone without being accosted by law enforcement?" a Sunday breakfast regular named Michael cracks as he rolls a cigarette. Anderson smiles as she refers him to the public defender for help with his vagrancy charge. "Is it true what they say about free legal advice being worth exactly what you pay for it?" he jokes. 

The homeless people here need help with everything from eviction and employment issues to criminal charges, domestic matters and getting welfare benefits. They "have the same types of legal problems that everyone else has, they just don't have a home. ... and they don't have money to deal with them," Anderson explains. And police hassle them for loitering and vagrancy, a problem that people with homes rarely face.

Anderson and her crew seldom see their clients a second time. Occasionally, however, someone follows up. Recently, an elderly disabled man was diagnosed with cancer. "He called me," Anderson recalls, "and he said, ‘Thank goodness you got me on Medicaid, because I can get treatment that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to get.' "

For the past eight years, Anderson has also been involved with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a small nonprofit that works with people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, such as murder and rape, in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. The Center first exonerated a client in 2004, when Anderson used DNA evidence to prove Bruce Dallas Goodman innocent of the 1984 murder of his girlfriend. Anderson was at Goodman's side when he walked out of jail after serving 19 years, with little more than a $100 check from his prison account.

The law wasn't Anderson's first career choice; she used to be an actress. After a brief stint in New York City, she and her husband, a chef, headed west to Seattle. A short layover in Salt Lake City, Anderson's hometown, somehow became permanent. "The theater opportunities were not great for me in Utah," she laughs. "At that point, I decided to apply to law school, and I applied to one law school and decided that if I got in, I would go, and if I didn't, I wouldn't. And I got in." 

Anderson's 10-year-old daughter is a constant source of inspiration. "You know, one day she came home from school and she told me, ‘Mom, my friends told me that all lawyers are rich and mean.' And it's really important to me that that not be the case." But the lawyer admits that there's a selfish aspect to her work. "It's not all altruistic. I have to do it or I don't think I'd sleep at night."

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