A Homeless Court Program is something that we (we being Sean, the other clerk in the Homelessness Advocacy Project, myself, and others) are trying to bring to New Orleans as another way to eradicate homelessness in the city. Homeless Court Programs, or HCPs, are prevalent in California (there are 14 in that state alone), and are slowly gaining popularity throughout the United States. The first HCP ever started in San Diego a few years ago. Over the next few weeks, Sean and I will be putting together a report to present to judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and people with deep pockets throughout the city in order to create an HCP here.
Today, I tried to learn what exact an HCP is. The American Bar Association in all its wisdom put together a wonderful report detailing exactly what an HCP is, and recommending that cities adopt HCPs in order to combat homelessness. I of course was sold. Ha! Here’s the bottom line: homeless people are typically arrested or given citations for “quality-of-life” infractions, such as unauthorized use of a shopping cart, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, sleeping on a sidewalk/bench/beach/insert-uncomfortable-place-to-sleep-here, criminal trespass, or public urination – basically for being homeless. The punishment for these types of infractions tends to be fines, custody or probation. Homeless people do not have the resources to pay their fines, and these citations pile up. Warrants issue, and as a result, homeless people cannot “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and apply for jobs, public benefits like food stamps, Social Security or Medicaid, get a driver’s license or sign a lease.
HCPs are meant to help homeless people by bringing the court to them. The first important characteristic of HCPs is that they are completely voluntary. Homeless people do not have to participate if they don’t want to; some homeless people participate only to find out that they do not in fact have any outstanding fines or warrants. The second important point is that homeless people present themselves to the HCP only after they have participated in a homeless shelter’s program for some period of time. The shelters actually refer homeless people to HCPs; HCPs do not seek out defendants. Shelters serve as the “first stop” in the HCP process, as they will only refer homeless people who have achieved certain goals in the program or meet certain criteria; generally, the shelters come up with the criteria on their own.
The MOST important characteristic is that HCP judges DO NOT HAND OUT SENTENCES. They do not collect fines, put people in custody, or punish people in any way. Instead, homeless people present proof from the shelter or substance abuse treatment facility they’ve been staying at that they have in fact participated in the shelter activities. The time spent in these activities counts as “credit” for “time served.” The activities include life skills, AA/NA meetings, computer or literacy classes, training or searching for jobs, counseling and volunteer work.
How exactly does this work? The idea behind the “credits,” and HCPs in general, is that the courts are meant to eradicate homelessness. By participating in shelter programs and activities, homeless people are actually addressing the issues that made them homeless in the first place (illiteracy, mental or physical illness, chronic substance abuse) and doing something about it. This so-called “alternative sentencing” addresses the underlying problems and enables individuals to empower themselves; quite a better “alternative” from charging individuals fines they cannot pay, keeping them in custody only to release them back onto the streets, or keeping them in prison where they continue to self-medicate by feeding their addictions!
So this is all I know on the subject thus far. Thanks to California and other states, there’s a lot of data out there about what has and hasn’t worked. Luckily for us, we already have a judge on board, and lots of other people willing to get this program off the ground. Where the funding will come from is another story, but where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?
If not, checks can be made out to Margaret Kuklewicz. I promise I won’t spend the money on jewelry and Hurricanes.