Homeless Court

This is an updated version of an article that was originally published in the November 2015 issue of the Contra Costa Lawyer. 

For the last 11 years, on the second Thursday of each month I pack up my robe and nameplate. Then my clerk Annie Young, my bailiff Paul Welge and I all head over to the Homeless Shelter on Arnold Industrial Way in Concord to conduct the Contra Costa Community Homeless Court. If you’ve never been to the shelter before, you might miss it in an area of light industrial buildings on the north side of Highway 4. But it is one of two large emergency shelter sites in our county (the other one is on Brookside in Richmond) that each have the capacity to serve over 160 men and women. It is a busy place that provides shelter and services for all too many residents of our county.

As I walk through the parking lot, I’m almost always warmly greeted by residents. Often somebody breaks into an imitation of Sammy Davis Jr., “Here comes the judge, here comes the judge!” Once we get into the building, it’s a short walk to the courtroom past some donated couches where people sleep.  This courtroom looks a little different from the one I usually sit in.  Most of the time it serves as the shelter cafeteria. My bench is a little folding table at one end of the room next to the Formica counter in front of the open kitchen.

By the time we get there the room is packed with anxious court participants. Each of them has been individually recommended for the court by a counselor, case manager or social worker who has witnessed that person’s efforts to break out of homelessness. Just about all of them have spent hundreds of hours doing whatever it takes to get back on their feet. They have completed lengthy drug or alcohol treatment programs, job training classes, anger management courses and mental health counseling. As a result of their hard work, they have made it to a point where they can once again live a normal life with a home, a job and a family.

One big barrier stands in the way, however. During their life on the street, people who are homeless often are cited for minor infractions for things like panhandling, jay walking and drinking in public. If they have a car, they get tickets for driving without a license or failure to maintain insurance.  When they don’t appear in court to address these tickets, penalty fines and civil assessments are added to the initial bail amount. Very quickly a few of these tickets can result in thousands of dollars of debt. When the debt isn’t paid their driver’s license gets suspended. These outstanding tickets can result in denials of housing and other benefits as well.

Because Homeless Court participants have all spent significant time in programs, I’m able to give people credit for that time towards paying down the outstanding debt. In most cases they have spent so much time in programs that all of a person’s outstanding ticket debt can be satisfied. Since the fines are no longer due, participants often can get their driver’s license renewed and get on track for a new job and a new home.

Recently, we have a new face at Homeless Court, Jaime Luna from the Department of Child Support Services for Contra Costa County (DCSS). Ms. Luna carefully pre-screens all of the participants and identifies people that either owe child support or are owed child support. I call out the names at the beginning of the court session and encourage the people identified to go to the DCSS table at the back of the room to talk with Jaime.  If somebody is owed child support, DCSS starts the process with the individual to attempt to secure payment.  For the Homeless Court participants that owe child support, DCSS works with them to lift driver’s license holds put in place for non-payment. They also provide waivers or generous terms for payment so that the people can afford to pay once they get a job. This service is extremely helpful in getting people get back on their feet. It’s really a win/win situation since once they do get a job, they can start making their child support payments again.

People are so thankful for having the weight of this debt lifted and for the freedom to get on with their lives. Most of the time, they have lived with this burden for years. Frequently they don’t believe it really happened. Sometimes they shed a few tears. Sometimes the judge does too.