Trespassing, drinking in public, shoplifting. Minor charges that for most just result in a fine. For some, however, the issue becomes much more than the fine; it is their reasons for trespassing, what led them to drinking in public, what they needed—and thus had to steal—that is the true issue.
For many people experiencing homelessness, accumulated charges for nonviolent crimes can be the difference between life in a shelter or housing and life on the streets. Crimes such as stealing and trespassing are usually “quality of life issues” said Jeff Yungman, the Director and Staff Attorney for the Homeless Justice Project at One80 Place in Charleston. The Project attempts to provide legal aid to those experiencing homelessness and establish a legal process that understands that poor choices can result from the need to survive.
The first Homeless Court was established in San Diego, California in 1989. Today there are about 50 around the country. Each one operates by their own standards as to what charges they will take on. However, they all share the same goal: to provide a fair and separate legal system to those who are attempting to change their life but may have trouble staying on the right path.
“[Homeless Courts] came about because there had been some recognition that people who are [experiencing] homelessness don’t go to court,” explained Yungman. “Either they don’t go to court because they are afraid of what will happen in court, they aren’t properly dressed for court…they did not receive proper notice to come to court because of transitional living.” In some instances, it is also a matter of knowing that the punishment, like a fine, is too expensive or will inhibit them from moving forward with a job or finding their own home.
Using One80 Place as an example, the process begins when a person approaches their case manager about a citation they have received or a warrant for their arrest. The case manager will send the person to Yungman and the Homeless Justice Project team, also located at One80, to review their case. The case manager will write a letter of advocacy for the individual before the process is handed over to the city solicitor and the city public defender. The final decision ultimately weighs the history of offenses against the steps the person is taking now to improve their life. For instance, if someone is working with a case manager at One80 to find a job or get medical treatment, those steps would work in their favor in the Homeless Justice system. At this time, the Charleston Homeless Court will only handle municipal charges and victimless charges (except shoplifting). If a person has had too many offenses in their past or perhaps, they are not vigorously attempting to improve their life, the regular court system will be their only option.
The Homeless Court Pilot Project is here to help those who live in fear and constant contact with the justice system, based on quality of life issues. Hopefully, they will come out on the other side with the resources they need for a successful, healthy life.