Resources: Homeless / Caring Court
When was the last time you walked down the street, beaming with joy and relief, with the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders? About 180 people a year leave a special courtroom in Alameda County looking exactly this way, beaming, free, and with a new beginning. Sometimes they are crying, sometimes just repeating “thank you” to everyone associated with this problem-solving court program.
In October 2004, representatives from many stakeholders in Alameda County (including the Public Defender and District Attorney’s offices) convened at St. Vincent DePaul in downtown Oakland for Alameda County’s first Homeless and Caring Court session. Complete with the flags of California and the United States, official Court seals, court clerks, a prosecutor and public defender, and a robed judge, this community-based Court sets up every other month at service centers and church halls in Oakland, Berkeley, and Hayward. As Alameda County’s Homeless Court embarks on its fifth year of operations, it is now one of sixteen similar type of courts throughout California.
The Homeless/Caring Court helps serve homeless and recently homeless individuals within Alameda County who have outstanding infractions, citations, or misdemeanor cases. None of these matters are felonies, violent crimes, Driving Under the Influence (DUI) charges or other matters that have jurisdiction in other specialty courts, such as Youth Court, Drug Court, Domestic Violence Court or Family Court. In most instances, the fines associated with these low level matters have escalated to be a significant barrier to acquiring or maintaining housing, retaining a valid drivers license, gaining employment, resolving child support matters, and can even disqualify people from disability benefits. Through Homeless/Caring Court, participants of community-based programs voluntarily utilize Homeless Court, aided by the program staff where participants are receiving services. Participants and their program staff prepare a comprehensive application to the Court, detailing the circumstances when the violations occurred, all the participant’s progress to date, and submitting independent verification of progress. All applications are screened for completeness and eligibility, and participants meet with the Public Defender in advance of the Court session at the same location where the Court will be held a week later.
At the Homeless Court session, participants (or litigants) are given credit for active involvement and success in shelters, recovery programs, self help programs, job training programs, successful job searches, GED or other types of educational programs, counseling, volunteer work, or housing search and acquisition. This personal growth and progress are used in lieu of traditional fines, community service, or jail time and is tailored to each individuals’ circumstances. Resolution of cases at the Homeless/Caring Court helps the homeless individual, the courts, and local communities by removing potential barriers to social reintegration, easing court case-processing backlogs, and reducing costs to both the courts and community.
The partnership and contributions of community agencies, philanthropic organizations, the Public Defender and District Attorney’s offices, Court personnel, and EveryOne Home are essential to the Court’s ability to continue this effective and innovative program with minimal funding. Grants from the Foundation of the State Bar of California have been coupled with resources from EveryOne Home to offset coordination costs of this program.
Many of these same entities also support the Court’s participation in the Veterans Stand Down event every two years where homeless veterans have access to comprehensive services, including a Court under a military tent. Since 2004, Homeless Court and Stand Down have served 684 people of which 96% report being “very satisfied” with the services receives through these collaborative community-based courts. Half report that the dismissal of their matters will allow them to seek employment; 47% report they will now be able to seek housing.