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Charleston's Homeless Court helped 13 people find housing in one year, but is it the answer?

When one door opens

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After first meeting in 2015, the committee behind Charleston's Homeless Court proposed that its cases be heard outside of a traditional courtroom.

People struggling with homelessness aren't thrilled by the prospect of going to Municipal Court at 180 Lockwood Blvd. The steady presence of law enforcement deters routine violators, who are often ticketed for doing things they can't help, like urinating in public or sleeping outside.

Sometimes, just getting there can be a challenge.

"A lot of them couldn't come to court, and we were trying them in their absence and that wasn't fair," said Judge Joseph S. Mendelsohn, who presides over the city's Homeless Court in a room at One80 Place, a nonprofit homeless shelter downtown.

Hearings are scheduled for the fourth Thursday of the month, but the court can go months without convening if there aren't enough cases on the docket. Mendelsohn and Judge Phyllis A. Rico Flores take turns on the bench depending on their schedules at Municipal Court.

There are about 70 homeless courts across the country, according to the American Bar Association. Some of them are held during infrequent "Stand Down" events for homeless veterans.

In Charleston, having your case routed to Homeless Court is a tangled process that puts defendants at the mercy of hard-to-track referrals and unspecified criteria. One80 Place can help individuals apply to the program, but most cases come straight from Municipal Court.

Prosecutor Will Bryant flags potential candidates when he's going through incident reports with Deputy Prosecutor Lindsey Byrd in preparation for court.

"If the person is homeless and the charge is appropriate, we recommend the person to Homeless Court, and they're given the paperwork for Homeless Court and we give them a follow-up date," he said.

At One80 Place, defendants are paired with service providers like Origin SC, the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. If the defendant proves that he or she is cooperating with a personalized program and making substantial progress toward finding housing, the case is dismissed.

"If they don't do that, then they're given a date to come back to Municipal Court," Bryant said.

But what charge is "appropriate" for Homeless Court depends on the views of those making the referrals. Bryant, for one, says he's mostly focused on alcohol-related incidents.

"If someone has had a longtime problem with alcohol, and we think they'd benefit from going to Homeless Court, then that is what we do," he said.

Judges can refer defendants after they appear in Municipal Court, but in the end, there is no guarantee that a case involving a homeless person will be routed to the alternative court. The city court does not track the number of cases involving possibly homeless individuals that are not sent to One80 Place, says court manager Joyce Downs.

Since the Homeless Court kicked off in March 2017, One80 Place has received 80 case referrals from the city court, along with an uncounted number of referrals from other service providers.

Only 22 people have successfully completed Charleston's program since its debut.

From March 2018 to February 2019, the court's second year in operation, 13 of the 15 participants who successfully completed the process were "stably housed" by their disposition date, according to the Homeless Court's annual report released this month. The most common charges were trespassing, open container, possession of paraphernalia, disorderly conduct, and assault and battery.

"Most, if not all, were housed at the time and had effectively ended their homelessness," said One80 Place staff attorney Mary Vosburgh.

Mary Vosburgh - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Mary Vosburgh

In other words, the program works — if you know about it and are able to finish it.

The court's work doesn't come close to addressing the number of homeless citations given out in Charleston. In August 2018, the City Paper found that the Charleston Police Department routinely uses trespassing and other laws to cite the homeless simply for sleeping outside, something that is not supposed to be illegal in the City of Charleston. The department has cited at least a dozen people for similar violations since that time, based on incident reports obtained by CP.

In some cases, violators are issued a "homeless resource sheet" with outdated information. (For example, it refers to One80 Place as a "Legal Clinic.") In other instances, they are not given anything more than a ticket with their Municipal Court date on it.

The Homeless Court's low completion rate raises questions about the referral process and the resources available to those who are routed to the less punitive route.

For Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the problem begins at the street level.

"Our position is that it's far better not to charge someone in the first place than to run them through the homeless court system after the fact," he said. "Homeless courts can help to reduce the harm that's done by the legal process, but cities can choose a less harmful way in the first place."

The harm is worse when service providers don't have the resources to help defendants meet the court's requirements.

"One-fourth of the people is great for those 22 people, but the other 60 of those people who weren't able to complete it, plus all the other people who never even got the referral in the first place, they're still worse off than they would've been if the city wasn't using its resources to criminalize these activities," Tars said.

In an interview with CP in August 2018, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said the city would "certainly try to drive some more folks to the court."

No one from the City of Charleston or Charleston County has reached out to One80 Place about increasing the number of referrals to the Homeless Court, Vosburgh says.

In September, Charleston County is giving One80 Place $45,000 as part of a grant meant for "shelter services, outreach, and rapid re-housing," according to Jean Sullivan, the county's director of community development. Additional aid for the shelter or the Homeless Court program would need to be proposed by a member of County Council, said county spokesman Shawn Smetana

The City of Charleston gave the homeless shelter $45,000 in community assistance funds for 2019, according to city spokeswoman Chloe Field. The city has also budgeted for $25,000 to be given to the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center for services for the homeless. Neither of the funds are specifically allocated for the Homeless Court process.

Too many people in government view homelessness as something that can be punished out of a person, Tars says. He took aim at Lt. Heath King from the Charleston Police Department, who previously told CP that citations should be "a catalyst for people to be moving in the right direction."

Tars argues that a Housing First approach, focused on both housing and "wrap-around" services such as mental health care and substance abuse recovery, serves the homeless without the threat of a criminal record.

"Folks are falling through the cracks because they can't meet these requirements," said Sarah Gillespie, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. "You can't end someone's homelessness if we're putting up all these barriers to getting them housed."

Gillespie oversees a project that provides supportive housing for homeless people who cycle in and out of the criminal justice system in Denver, Colo. Funded by eight private investors through a $8.63 million social impact bond, the project has resulted in a 101-unit building with an entire floor dedicated to social services and a 60-bedroom "trauma-informed" building. Denver has also used existing subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, low-income housing tax credits, and help from various partners, including the city's public housing authority, to house 250 homeless people for a total of five years.

Communities must recognize the link between homelessness and the criminal justice system before anything can be done to stop the revolving door, Gillespie says. Housing First models, like the one in Denver, solve the number one problem that keeps homeless people in and out of courtrooms: having nowhere to go.

"That's a hallmark of what the [study of homelessness] has recognized in general, and how the field has shifted and moved away from required sobriety, or participation in services, to housing," Gillespie said.

In April 2017, Charleston City Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of Housing First, citing an endorsement by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. An upcoming development at 573 Meeting St. is the first step in realizing that commitment. One80 Place is facilitating construction of the 86-unit building, which will serve "persons and families transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing," said Geona Shaw Johnson, the city's director of housing and community development, in a statement provided to CP. Studio and efficiency units will start at $652 a month for a single adult earning $26,100, or half of the area's median income.

Judge Mendelsohn says the Homeless Court is a good alternative to Municipal Court, where the punishments are likely to be jail time, fines, or both, all of which make it more difficult for a person to overcome homelessness.

"It's just punitive and it doesn't make things better for them," Mendelsohn said.

He admits that there are problems with the program, such as the rate of recidivism among participants.

"In the interim, you get in trouble again, and then they bring them back to court again," Mendelsohn said. "You've probably not had an occurrence to meet a homeless street person. I have, and you'll find that a good many of them, for whatever reason, are perfectly satisfied with their way of life."

Despite its shortcomings, those close to the Homeless Court process say the option is an overall good for the community.

"I think there's no question that it's been positive, not just for our office, but for those who have gone through the program and successfully completed it," said Bryant, the city prosecutor.

Vosburgh, the One80 Place attorney, says the Municipal Court has been "amazing" in referring defendants to Homeless Court, where they at least have an opportunity to find housing and clear their records.

"We're gonna grow and change and mold to what the court needs," Vosburgh said. "We had a pretty decent year, the word is getting out, and we're just doing our best to continue helping people end their homelessness."

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