Homeless Courts Are A Turning Point For Many

by Baker Donelson
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Judge Andra Sparks presiding at Turning Point.  Alice Westery of Youth Towers listens as one of her clients appears.

Over the last several months, I have had the privilege of being part of a team that has created and launched a new homeless court program in the City of Birmingham. We had some wonderful examples on which to model our effort, including the training provided by Steve Binder of San Diego, and the work in New Orleans that has been led by Baker Donelson attorney Sherry Dolan. With three monthly hearings now under our collective belt, and a full slate of participants for next month, I think we can say that we've had a successful beginning!

Participants in Birmingham's homeless court program, dubbed "Turning Point" by Judge Andra Sparks, come as referrals from the service providers with whom they are living and working. The idea is to identify people who are diligently working toward escaping homelessness, and for whom removing the impediments of pending charges, or existing fines they cannot pay (with accompanying warrants) will be a major step forward. Our hearings have so far taken place at the First Light Shelter, but we will likely move to other service provider locations in the future. It's so important to have these hearings in a location that engenders trust among our participants, since many are too afraid to even go inside the courthouse.

Things have been pretty hectic since we got started! So far, I am serving as the coordinator, so all the referrals come to me, and I find the volunteer attorneys and match them with clients. I have also represented a couple of the participants myself. It is so worth it. Over the last three months, I have seen many participants enabled to get a driver's license, enroll in classes to complete their education, or become employed because the court exercised compassion and worked with them to find a productive, rather than punitive, way to resolve their cases. It has been a real joy to see volunteer attorneys (from law firms all over Birmingham) working collaboratively with their clients and service providers, the city prosecutor, and the court to make this happen. It has also been instructive to watch Judge Sparks illustrate what he meant when he named the program. In every case, he has engaged the homeless participant thoughtfully and insightfully, aiming to truly make the outcome a "turning point" for the person seated across from him. While that sometimes means dismissing charges, at other times it has meant that the individual still has work to do. But instead of pointless monetary fines, what ultimately will earn the resolution of charges is the effort that moves the individual toward becoming housed - continuing with rehab, education or job training, finding work or getting a valid driver's license. Things of real value in the life of the individual.

I can't begin to express how grateful I am to the City of Birmingham Municipal Court. Judge Andra Sparks, Court Administrator Mankinta Holloway, City Attorney LaResha Cade have all given a great deal of their time and effort to making this work, and I have burdened Administrative Assistant Linda Harris with many, many requests for copies of court files. Many attorneys have enthusiastically volunteered to represent homeless people:

Kris Anderson, Jenna Bedsole, Natalie Bolling, Jeffrey Bramer, Paige Casey, Hillary Chinigo, Jonathan Cobb, Pat Clotfelter, Jeffrey Dummier, Chase Espy, Shannon Floyd, Michael Hanle, Sarah Merkle, Stephen Scott, Randy Sellers, Alison Smith and Matthew Swerdlin, all just in the first three court dates!

We have also had a wonderful response from service providers, with referrals so far from Changed Lives Christian Center, Church of the Reconciler, First Light, Firehouse Shelter, Pathways, TASC, UAB REACT, Youth Towers and the YWCA.

I am so looking forward to discussing the homeless court model with Equal Justice Conference attendees in Portland!

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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