Photo: Steve Binder, San Diego Homeless Court, conferring with Bettye King, Birmingham Municipal Court
Our Birmingham office had the honor last week of hosting a training conference for those who will be participants in the operation of a new Homeless Court in the City of Birmingham Municipal Court. We were very fortunate (and thrilled!) to have Steve Binder, the founder and administrator of the original homeless court docket in San Diego, as our instructor. It was so inspiring to hear and see what has been accomplished in San Diego, and what a tremendous difference it has made in so many lives. I think it is safe to say that Birmingham's conference attendees left the session with great enthusiasm to make our own Homeless Court a reality.
While Birmingham does not have as large a homeless population as San Diego, the numbers of people experiencing both homelessness and chronic legal problems would likely surprise most area residents. A good indication is the number of people who visit the legal services area of Project Homeless Connect, which is an annual event. At a typical PHC, the volunteer attorneys and the generous judges and court staff who also volunteer their time will hande the cases of several hundred individuals during just a six hour period. While it is wonderful that these people are able to get their immediate legal woes (mainly outstanding warrants that are preventing them from getting an identification card) handled on a Saturday morning, PHC is simply not able to address the larger issues that make those legal woes likely to recur.
Homeless court is different, right from the start. Instead of starting the process with lawyers and judges, and ending it with fines the homeless person can't pay and the continuing threat of more warrants, arrests or even jail time, this process starts with the service providers who are working to help the homeless get back on their feet. As the first step, providers identify the people in their programs who are being held back by a legal problem. Perhaps a client has been in the shelter, and participating in rehab or job training programs for several weeks, but can't apply for work or get a driver's license or i.d. card because there's a warrant for his arrest over a traffic violation or misdemeanor offense with unpaid fines. The provider can help the individual apply to have his cases transferred to the homeless docket for resolution, and can help him complete whatever steps are necessary to bring about a successful resolution of those cases.
Homeless people struggle with a surprising number of minor criminal charges, many of which arise from the condition of homelessness, or from the conditions that caused homelessness, such as addictions. Thanks to the criminalization of homelessness over the years, many homeless individuals collect dozens of citations for things like public urination, sleeping in the park, and so on. To make matters worse, it's very difficult for many homeless people to keep track of documents like citations that contain their court dates, and hard for them to get to court even if they know when they're supposed to go. And of course, there's the ever present fear and mistrust of the system, that would keep many homeless people from appearing in court even if they were able to do so.
Once providers identify people who would benefit from homeless court, and want to do so, they work with both prosecutor and defense attorney (here, a pro bono volunteer) to review a client's charges, as well as his achievements. Together, this group devises an agreed upon plan to help the client dispose of his court cases. The requirements to be completed by the homeless person are frequently at least equal to, and often more extensive than, the kinds of community service that might otherwise be ordered. But instead of sweeping floors at City Hall, the homeless person earns the resolution of his charges by taking steps that are also designed to help him achieve his other goals, such as finding work, staying sober, or getting a permanent place to live. He takes these steps in partnership with his service provider, and his service provider documents his progress.
Once the individual has completed the necessary steps, such as finishing rehab, he and his attorney appear at the monthly homeless court docket. Part of what makes homeless court work is that it does not take place in the courthouse. I can't tell you how many clients I have met at shelter clinics who had warrants outstanding for failure to appear, largely because they felt certain that if they went to the courthouse they would wind up in jail.
By the time of the hearing, an agreed upon proposal for resolution of his cases, most often by dismissal of the charges, has already been presented to the judge. The judge, seated at a table in the community room rather than up on the bench in a courtroom, discusses the cases and their resolution with the homeless person and his attorney. And he dispsenses justice.
Obviously, the opportunity to resolve long lingering charges that have stood in the way of driving, job-seeking, obtaining public benefits, and applying for housing, is huge. But the real beauty of the homeless court is this - it offers the homeless person the chance to experience both justice and renewal. A renewal of hope, and a renewal of trust. The homeless participant can gain some trust in the system, and the system communicates its trust in him as well. He is trusting the court to treat him fairly, and the court is trusting him to use the opportunity it has given him to go out and make a better life for himself.
All of us who work with homeless populations in Birmingham are grateful to Birmingham's Presiding Judge, Andra Sparks, for his vision and his compassion in establishing the homeless court. By doing so, Judge Sparks places the Birmingham Municipal Court in the vanguard of those who recognize that just keeping homeless people in the cycle of petty offenses, citations, unpaid fines, and warrants accomplishes nothing, and that everyone is better off when the homeless succeed and are able to lift themselves to a better and more stable way of life.
Homeless Court in Birmingham is slated to begin holding monthly sessions this Fall. With any luck, the surrounding cities will eventually want to participate as well.
Photos: Above, service providers and court personnel discussed how they can work together to make the homeless court docket run smoothly. Below, Steve Binder gave a half day workshop on the operations of San Diego's successful homeless court program.