Homeless Courts: Compassion and Problem Solving at Work

Homeless courts are special court sessions for homeless defendants that resolve outstanding misdemeanor offences and warrants.  Several states are operating homeless court programs within their jurisdictions, including: California, Colorado, Utah, Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona and Washington.   San Diego County started the first homeless court program in the country in 1989.

 In 2005, Houston’s Homeless Court was created uniting around 30 of Houston’s human service agencies.  As of September 24, 2012, there are now 73 community referring partners, including:  domestic violence shelters, Healthcare for the Homeless, transitional housing for GLBT youth, substance abuse treatment centers, soup kitchens, HIV transitional housing, SRO permanent housing, emergency shelters, mental healthcare drop-in centers, and veteran services.

The Homeless Court within Houston’s Municipal Court is sponsored by the Houston Coalition for the Homeless.  The Coalition partners with the court to resolve Class II misdemeanors.  I had the opportunity to visit this court as part of the Texas Conference on Ending Homelessness during which our small group was invited by the Houston Coalition for the Homeless to observe a homeless court docket in action.  Ultimately, given its fair procedures, we witnessed what works in a “problem solving” court and how this type of court works to prevent crime while increasing a sense of justice and well-being among the community. We witnessed lives celebrated by a judge who chose not to wear her robe, explaining that she does not want the participants, who are in a state of crisis to begin with, to feel even more scared and anxious. The docket included the following: riding the Metro train without a valid ticket, public nuisance offenses, and a CDL truck driver ticketed for driving without a seatbelt and then failure to appear in court.  For those who completed their community service hours, the judge dismissed the fines.  She always praised their accomplishments and frequently commented on the number of hours many worked, many of which were more than the amount required.  For those participants speaking to the judge for the first time the process was explained not only by the judge, but by the prosecutor too. Her manner was equally compassionate, beginning each interaction by asking the participant, “How are you today?” Most responses were low and inaudible.   After explaining this unique process, the prosecutor repeated the question.   This time, everyone said more loudly, “Good.”   The palpable fear and anxiety we heard in their voices was now non-existent.  

I posed some questions to Scot More, homeless court coordinator with Houston Coalition for the Homeless:

Pam: Why is Houston’s Homeless Court so successful?

Scot: Our homeless court’s success has always been client driven but its sustainability is with the awesome collaboration we have with the City of Houston, the municipal courts and our homeless service providers. 

Pam: What is your hope for the future of the homeless courts and other specialty courts?

Scot: I have long hoped for a way that all specialty courts could network nationally.

Pam:  What advice would you give to someone who would like to start a homeless court in their city?

Scot: Find a judge who is empathetic to your clients’ needs and who embraces restorative justice. I recommend that you “work from the middle out”.  Develop a pilot program and gather as much data possible to show needs and success, then go to the top.  With our proven success, our presiding judge was able to present stats to our mayor and city council to develop an MOU. The best promotion is word of mouth from those who have gone through court.  I still get goose bumps watching the stress and fear instantly melt away when I tell our clients in court that “You are not going to jail.”  Their smiles and tears of joy are my reward.  I thoroughly enjoy removing barriers for those who cannot do that for themselves.            

Pam:  How do the judge and prosecutor educate themselves about the status and conditions often faced by individuals experiencing homelessness?

Scot: Our clients educate the court staff. I cannot speak for our presiding judges individually, but collectively I have done nothing really to educate them on cases of homelessness.  Everything they know has come directly from taking the time to ask clients questions and getting to understand what they go through to exit homelessness.   Since our community service is defined by their “Participation” in their program, the judge gets to see their hard work documented on their log.  Our docket is no different than any other docket, except our expansion of the definition of community service and we guarantee that no one goes to jail in relation to the offense.

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