January 01, 2014

Returning Home . . . to Homelessness: San Diego’s Homeless Court Program Models Ways to Help

Editor’s Note: The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty is dedicated to establishing homeless courts and legal services at Stand Down events for homeless veterans. It offers free technical assistance. For more information, e-mail Commission Director Amy Horton-Newell at amy.hortonnewll@americanbar.org. or call her at (202) 662-1693.

In 1989, it was not unusual for a homeless person in San Diego to carry a pocketful of 20 or more citations. One could also find a handful of people on the streets with 50 to 100 warrants for “disturbing the peace.” The citations issued by police came to be seen as an indirect invitation to get out of town. In practice, the police and the homeless were engaged in a game of cat and mouse. The police would conduct a sweep of the streets in downtown San Diego, issue citations, and force the homeless into Balboa Park. In an effort to clear out the park, police would issue a new round of citations. And another round-robin of citations and movement would ensue.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless for San Diego County estimates the City of San Diego is residence to more than 9,600 homeless people, fewer than half of whom are sheltered. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimate that nearly 42 percent of our nation’s homeless veterans are located in the San Diego area. The cost of housing people in an emergency shelter bed is $5 a night for an average transitional shelter bed, while support services cost $40 a day. The cost of incarceration in the county jail is an estimated $90 a night. If mental health services are required, the cost of incarceration exceeds $400 a day.

By the late eighties, the police complained that the people they arrested were released after serving a few days in custody. Judges were frustrated with the backlog of cases and warrants that accumulated when defendants failed to appear for court. These same judges realized the futility of handing out sentences and issuing orders that would not be obeyed.

Homeless defendants often fail to appear in court, not because of a disregard for the court system, but because of their status and condition. They struggle daily for food, clothing, and shelter. They are not in a position to adhere to short-term guidelines. Not only does the daily struggle to survive inhibit participation in court, but the participants are also scared. The court orders and sentences result in fines they cannot pay and custody that ends with their release back to the streets in the same condition in which they started. Custody leaves them, society, and the court no better off than before they went in.

When homeless people did appear in court, they tried to explain to the judge the sorry set of circumstances that had taken them from families, homes, and jobs to sleeping in the dirty bedrolls that lay beside them in court. Some were articulate and educated and some were even working. Yet they still were unable to afford a rent deposit or a room. They would come before the court and walk away with a sentence that required them to pay a fine, perform public service work, or spend time in custody. They picked up their court orders at the clerk’s office and walked back to the streets, adding legal burdens on top of their other troubles.

Not only did this approach affect the people experiencing homelessness, but the prosecutors, judges, and even the police were uncomfortable and frustrated with the futility of this revolving-door approach. A person who cannot afford a room to rent cannot afford a fine for being homeless. At the time, there were no alternatives. The criminal justice system had an established routine that unfortunately did not adequately meet the needs of this population with special issues.

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