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4 tips to help expand the impact of homeless courts

Sep. 19, 2022

For more than 20 years, the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty (CHP) has been a leader in replicating the homeless court model across the country, helping to establish about 70 homeless court programs in 21 states. That leadership was on display again at the ABA National Homeless Court Summit held Sept. 12 and 13 at the law offices of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Washington, D.C.  

The summit convened judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, homeless services providers and persons with experience living in homeless situations to discuss best practices for homeless court programs that remove legal barriers to housing, employment and stability. 

A session on “What a Homeless Court Program Looks Like, and Why You Need One,” featured panelists from all parts of the process who had advice for lawyers wanting to get involved in this area, on a pro bono basis or otherwise. Here’s what they had to offer: 

Be patient. Unresolved trauma is often at the core of homeless veterans’ problems, said Dan Forsberg, a social worker at the Veterans Justice Outreach program in San Diego, who refers veterans to the city’s homeless court and supports treatment to address underlying issues. 

Once an issue such as substance abuse is under control, the real work begins, he said. That work, though, can lead to an “unraveling of advances” as the veteran starts dealing with mental health issues, Forsberg said, and may need two or three trips to homeless court before reaching his or her goals.  

Use the ABA’s resources. Judge Maria Dominguez, chief judge of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, restructured the county’s homeless court in 2019. Working with CHP special adviser Steve Binder, who founded the nation’s first homeless court in San Diego in 1989, Dominguez relied on the ABA seven guiding principles. They include establishing criteria for individual participation and establishing that participation in community-based treatment or services replace traditional sanctions such as fines, public work service and custody.

Be creative. Scot More, who was homeless before he became an intern for the Coalition for the Homeless in Houston, is now the homeless court program coordinator for the city. Homeless people need a referral to get into homeless court, he noted, and while typically it is a social worker or service provider, in his jurisdiction it can be an AA sponsor or a pastor. “We’ve gotten creative over the years,” More said.  

Lobby for systemic change. In the 13 years she ran the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore, Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, D.C., never saw homeless court programs as the ultimate goal. “They were a tool to help our clients resolve a very specific legal issue, but they were a Band-Aid on the ultimate problem,” which was the continuous arrest of those who don’t have sufficient shelter. 

In Baltimore, change arrived after Freddie Gray’s killing in 2015 forced Maryland’s leaders to take a hard look at how they treat people of color, particularly low-income ones, Fasanelli said. As a result, the State’s Attorney of Baltimore stopped charging marijuana-related offenses (the top offense of homeless people) and later announced “nuisance offenses,” including loitering and sleeping in public, would no longer be prosecuted. By no longer being charged with these offenses, it’s been easier for homeless people to get the services they need without having to stop at homeless court to get their records expunged, Fasanelli said. 

“You want to get to a place where you are no longer arresting or charging people experiencing homelessness simply because your community cannot provide” adequate housing, she said.

James Moody, court operations manager for the City of Charleston Municipal Courts in South Carolina, also spoke about his work with the city’s homeless court. Other sessions at the summit covered lessons learned, how to get more funding, using technology to simplify data collection and best practices for growing and improving homeless courts.

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