January 11, 2018

Homeless Courts

In 1989, San Diego established the first Homeless Court Program (HCP) in the nation, a special Superior Court session held at local homeless service agencies for homeless defendants to resolve misdemeanor criminal cases. To counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, this, and other HCPs across the country, combine a progressive plea bargain system, alternative sentencing structure, assurance of “no custody” and proof of program activities to address a full range of misdemeanor offenses. Alternative sentencing substitutes participation in agency programs for fines and custody. These activities include: life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer or English literacy classes, training or search for employment, counseling and education. The court agreement of “no custody” acknowledges the participant’s efforts in their program activities to satisfy Court requirements. Local homeless service agencies are the gateway for participants to voluntarily enter this Court. Prospective participants work with a shelter caseworker to design a plan to move towards self-sufficiency. The shelter representatives write advocacy letters for each client. The advocacy letter is symbolic of the relationship between the client and the agency and includes a description of the program, the client’s start date, accomplishments, programs completed and insight into the client’s efforts.

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and Homeless Courts:

The ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty has been instrumental in establishing homeless courts across the country. The Commission has developed a number of educational resources and routinely provides technical assistance. The has also approved policies related to homeless courts, including basic principles for homeless court programs

Homeless Courts are presently operating in the following jurisdictions:

Alameda County, CA Phoenix, AZ
Ann Arbor, MI Pima County/Tucson, AZ
Bakersfield, CA Placer County, CA
Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, NM Sacramento, CA
Charleston, SC Salinas, CA 
Columbia, SC
Salt Lake City, UT
Contra Costa, CA San Bernardino, CA
Denver, CO San Diego, CA
Fresno County, CA San Joaquin, CA
Grand Rapids, MI
Santa Clara, CA
Houston, TX
Santa Maria, CA
Humboldt, CA Sonoma County, CA
Kern County, CA Springfield, MO
Los Angeles, CA Stanislaus County, CA
Maricopa County, AZ Vancouver, WA
Orange County, CA Ventura County, CA

Many other jurisdictions are examining the possibility of creating similar programs, and the Commission is pleased to offer technical support. For more information, please contact Amy Horton-Newell at the ABA Washington Office at 202/662-1693 or via e-mail at homeless@americanbar.org.



San Diego Homeless Court Program

Homeless Court FAQ

Recognition and Replication

Policy in Support of Homeless Courts

2010 Principles for Veterans Treatment Courts

2006 Principles for Homeless Courts

2003 Homeless Court Program Policy

2007 Decriminalization of Homelessness


San Diego Homeless Court Serves as a Nationwide Model
December 29, 2017

Placer County's Homeless Court Swaps Fines for Service
July 16, 2017

Homeless Court? New Plan for Dealing with People Living on Stanislaus County Streets
July 15, 2017

Returning Home . . . to Homelessness: San Diego’s Homeless Court Program Models Ways to Help
An article in the Fall-Winter 2014 Issue of Experience Magazine by Steve Binder and Amy Horton-Newell

Paving the Way for Justice

Lawyers Working to End Homeless: The Homeless Court Program


And Justice for All

Bringing the Court to the Streets

Making a Difference

Homeless Court One-Pager

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty is conducting a survey of Homeless Court programs around the country to collect usable statistics and identify best practices. If you are an administrator with a Homeless Court program please take a few minutes to follow the link and complete the survey. Also, if you know of a Homeless Court program that we may have missed, please let us know, or forward the survey link to your contact at that program.

Your participation will help us to assess the effectiveness of various practices and improve the Homeless Court model as we continue to replicate this important program in other communities.

Thank you for your time and help, and thank you for your work with your Homeless Court program.

Survey Link: 

Homeless Courts expand access to justice and reduce the number of hearings necessary to successfully complete court orders by integrating the shelter system into the “currency” participants present for sentencing. Advanced preparation and fewer hearings translate into efficiency during courtroom hours and reduced court costs.

Shelters and service agencies save precious resources when clients move toward self-sufficient lives with cleared criminal cases. Before the Homeless Court Program, a client might successfully complete the agency program only to be incarcerated on an outstanding criminal case and, afterward, return to homelessness. When cases are resolved through the , the homeless service providers do not have to redouble their efforts. The shelters address the underlying problems homelessness represents.

For participants, the Court hearing is an opportunity to separate the past, as represented by the cases before the Court, from the present (and future) by presenting the accomplishments described in the advocacy letters, along with plans for future improvement.

For the community, the Homeless Court helps the community by engaging homeless people in gainful activity, thereby removing them from doorways, parks and gathering places where they are unwanted and susceptible to arrest. It helps homeless people move back into productive lives by addressing the legal issues that often create barriers to accessing employment, housing, public assistance and treatment programs.