Helping the Homeless, Case by Case

Less than a year ago, Yolanda Roy was strung out on meth, married to an abusive man, with no place to call home.  Fast forward to today.  The 34-year-old San Diegan just got a chance to start over, in big part thanks to a program called Homeless Court. 

"I'm really excited, I'm like, I can't even get the smile off my face, I'm so stoked," Roy said after a San Diego County Superior Court judge cleared all of her outstanding fines, and tickets for jaywalking and trolley offenses.

The Homeless Court program is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and is also celebrating successes like Roy’s by launching a new toolkit to help other places copy the idea.

“While the continued problems homelessness represents are discouraging and frustrating, it is important to remember: It is the condition of homelessness that is undesirable, not the people,” says public defender Steve Binder, who founded the first Homeless Court on the handball courts at San Diego High in 1989, the first program of its kind in the nation.

Roy’s counselor at St. Vincent De Paul Village helped her hook up with the Homeless Court program after eight months of job training and clean living.  She was motivated by a desire to reunite with her two sons, who have been adopted out to another family.

“Missing my children, that's something that, man I really miss my kids.  I haven't seen them since 2002, so you know I just want my life back the way that it was, just being here makes a difference for me,” says Roy as tears spill over her cheeks.

The special Superior Court sessions help homeless defendant like Roy resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants, building on partnerships between the court, local shelters, service agencies, the prosecutor, and the public defender.

“They struggle daily for food, clothing, and shelter.  They do not carry calendars. They are scared,” says Binder, who estimates about 8,000 people are now living on the streets of San Diego.

Homeless Court offers an alternative sentencing structure that is not coercive or punitive in nature, but is designed to assist homeless participants with reintegration into society instead.

The program has already been replicated in at least 14 communities in California (with seven more communities are in the developmental stages), as well as 13 jurisdictions across the United States.

The toolkit created by Binder will launch in March, with hopes it will help even more communities offer the special court sessions.

“Homeless Court is not a panacea, and will not a single handedly end homelessness.  It is however a practical way to remove legal obstacles from the path of those truly serious about recovery,” says San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter C. Deddeh.

And for Roy, it has not single handedly ended all of life’s challenges.  But it has given her a much better shot at meeting the many challenges that remain, without some of the baggage of legal problems she’s been lugging around for so long.

"I'm not going to give up, I'm not going to lose hope cause there's always hope for anyone out here, as long as you put forth the effort," Roy says.

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