Alumna Working for Rights of Homeless

Alexa Arndt (Political Science ‘15) is currently a second-year law student at Villanova University School of Law. She is putting her political science education to work on behalf of the homeless and those living in poverty with the hopes of becoming a public defender. Arndt has already worked with a number of reputable organizations including the New York Legal Assistance Group, Homeless Advocacy Project and the Philadelphia Defender Association.

Q&A with Alumna Alexa ArndtAlexa Arndt

What inspires you to work with organizations like the Homeless Advocacy Project?

Homelessness is a very visible issue both here (Pennsylvania) and in San Luis Obispo. I first become interested in homelessness during my first year of undergrad. After taking the Politics of Poverty with Professor Williams during my third year, I really began to study it and look for ideas within the legal profession. One of our class assignments involved spending the night in a shelter to help supervise, make coffee, etc. It was one of the only educational experiences I had up to that point that truly made me uncomfortable. I had never really had to deal with nor look at homelessness, but this experience made me want to focus on the legal problems they faced. Society tends to look away, leaving others to feel like everyone else has given up. Professor Williams supervised my senior project, which examined the perceptions homeless people had of the criminal justice system. I asked about their experiences with judges, public defenders, and police. I conducted my interviews at the Prado Day Center. I remember thinking it was strange how it was hidden behind other buildings by the freeway, completely invisible from the rest of the city. I hoped to use that information to guide my law school experience and learn how I could best attend to their needs.

What was your biggest takeaway from working with the New York Legal Assistance Group?

Honestly, the single biggest takeaway was that there are massive injustices in areas I had honestly never considered. I was placed in elder law by random chance, and I absolutely loved the attorneys supervising me. I was only there for five days, but I was able to get a feel for the issues they were facing. The primary focus of the elder law unit was protecting indigent clients from abusive state-funded care providers. We were inundated with claims of companies reducing the amount of care their patients were receiving. The services rendered involved helping them bathe, dress, and turning them over in bed, among other fundamental tasks. Essentially, these companies would reduce what they were willing to do, to the point that our clients were in danger of bed sores, falls, and other major injuries. I had the opportunity to go to a hearing, where I found that they had hired an attorney to literally sit in the administrative office all day to withdraw the reductions. These companies were reducing the services they were willing to render and hoping no one would challenge the reductions. We didn’t have to argue or make a case of any kind. The rest of my time was spent making a spreadsheet of these hearings and the outcomes. The vast majority were exactly like the one I had seen. I was really shocked to find that this was happening all the time, and I had no idea. People don’t talk about elder care abuse in these terms as often as I feel should be appropriate. You find this in all sides of public interest law, however. There are truly awful things happening all the time, and we all only know the tip of the iceberg in our particular area.

You are the current co-chair of Street Law at Villanova for 2016-2017. Can you tell us more about what you do through Street Law?

Street Law is a student-run organization that visits schools and youth organizations to discuss the constitutional implications of current events and address questions or concerns young people might have. We primarily visit low income neighborhoods, and we allow the conversation to be largely guided by the students. Given that we try to respond to what they are most curious about, we tend to spend a lot of time on the first, second, and fourth amendments. Many of the kids have already had negative encounters with law enforcement, and a staggering percentage have been touched by gun violence. Students in every class we visited have shown genuine curiosity about their rights, and how that translates into their day-to-day interactions. We spend a lot of time in small groups, where the tone can be more conversational than a lecture. We use hypothetical fact patterns to stimulate conversation, and we coordinate with teachers to set topics that are relevant to the class curriculum.

How did your education at Cal Poly help you prepare for your current work? Were there any courses, professors, or clubs that were particularly influential?

I really can’t overstate how important Professor Williams and Professor Den Otter were to my time at Cal Poly and path to law school. Professor Williams’ guidance through my senior project really solidified my interest in poverty and homelessness. I loved working on that project, and I learned so much from her through the process. Like I said, the Politics of Poverty was probably the single most important class I took in undergrad. Professor Den Otter was enormously helpful in the law school admissions process. He was kind enough to be honest about the quality (or lack thereof) of my first personal statement draft, and helped me fix it to be what it needed to be. He set up an internship with a local judge during my third year, and that experience taught me so much about actually being in a courtroom. His Civil Liberties class was one of my favorites, and it was the closest thing to a law school class I experienced at Cal Poly. They are both truly amazing educators, and I am so grateful for their guidance.

Mock Trial was a huge part of my time at Cal Poly. It helped me learn about trial advocacy and how to conduct myself in the courtroom. Currently, I am an intern with the Philadelphia Defender Association, where they have had me cross examine police officers. At this point in my life, I have done mock trial for eight years (four in high school, three in undergrad, one in law school). It certainly helps in a real cross examination when you have been practicing for so long. Being a part of the organization connected me to like-minded students, and many of us have been able to support each other through the law school admissions process. Front Porch was another huge source of support. I spent countless hours studying and praying there in the time leading up to law school.

What are your plans for the upcoming summer?

This summer, I will be working with the Philadelphia Defender Association as a certified legal intern. I began law school hoping to become a public defender, so this experience in one of America’s largest cities seemed like a great fit. Next year, I plan to be working with the Farmworkers Legal Aid Clinic and externing with Federal Public Defenders of New Jersey.

What do you envision doing with your law degree?

I plan to become a public defender. After working with Judge Rita Federman in SLO, thanks to Professor Den Otter, I spent time with local attorneys I had met. Through my time with Judge Federman and time I spent shadowing public defenders, I was fairly confident that I wanted to stick to that career path. Here at Villanova, I am externing with the public defender’s office in Philly. I love the work and the work environment. Every day is interesting, and each client has a story to tell in court. I don’t know where I plan to end up after graduation geographically, but wherever I am, I hope to be a public defender.    

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