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After the Bar

Public Service

Start a Homeless Court Program in Your Community

Matthew Wechter and Steve Binder

Start a Homeless Court Program in Your Community

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When you are homeless or at risk, criminal charges can be pressing issues. Sleeping, drinking, urinating in public, riding public transportation without fare, and a host of public nuisance offenses reflect life on the streets. Everyday activities you conduct in the privacy of your home, homeless people must do outside, totally exposed, creating legal barriers to self-sufficiency. New lawyers can remove these legal barriers for homeless defendants by getting involved with homeless courts and the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty (the Commission), by joining the Homeless Court Advisory Committee, supporting homeless court programming, and more. 

What Is a Homeless Court?

Homeless courts began in 1989 at Stand Down, a yearly three-day homeless veteran event held in San Diego, California. Homeless court is a special court session convened in homeless shelters, for homeless defendants looking to resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses, traffic citations, and warrants. Homeless courts operate nationwide, facilitating partnerships among courts, shelters, service agencies, participants, and attorneys to resolve problems that accompany homelessness, using practical solutions rather than fines or jail.

Homeless court referrals originate in shelters and service agencies after a participant has completed goals from an action plan. The case is reviewed, advocacy letters written by case managers are read, and an agreement is reached to dismiss cases and eliminate fines and custody. Designed for efficiency, most cases are heard and resolved in one hearing. For example, last year the San Diego Homeless Court Program reported that 720 clients were assisted in processing 4,226 cases. Of those cases, 3,272 involved collection fees, totaling in $2,038,100 satisfied by alternative sentencing.

The model’s greatest achievement is the collaboration between service agencies and homeless individuals, resulting in a more inclusive criminal justice system and a stronger community. Homeless courts are not statutory or court-mandated programs; rather, homeless individuals voluntarily sign up at their local shelter. In taking this initiative, participants can search for justice and reconciliation of their past and future. This makes participation a hand-up, not a hand-out.

How Is the ABA Involved with Homeless Courts?

The Commission leads the charge to implement homeless courts nationwide, having helped develop nearly 60 current programs. The ABA supports homeless court programming through its policy encouraging the creation and replication of homeless courts across the United States and outlining best practices for doing so. The Commission also facilitates the Homeless Court Advisory Committee, which new attorneys are encouraged to join. The committee maintains a national directory of currently operating homeless courts, detailed resources, and a network platform to connect homeless courts, provide technical assistance, and foster replication.

At the Commission’s national Homeless Court Summit, participants attended a training (Taking the Court to Stand Down: Homeless Court at Stand Down) where they reviewed the history and development of the homeless court at Stand Down and discussed resources needed for replication in their own communities. The Commission facilitates nationwide homeless court creation through educating on the model’s innovativeness in responding to the special legal problems homeless people face, and equipping communities with necessary administrative tools.

How Can New Attorneys become Involved with Homeless Courts?

Learn more about the Commission, join the advisory committee, support programming, and more. The Commission provides free technical assistance training to young lawyers who wish to start a homeless court program in their communities. To learn more, contact Commission Director Kelly Russo at [email protected] or contact the authors.