“You're looking for a job, trying to get your life in order, and they become familiar with your face.”
That's how Clayton got five trolley tickets in six months. By the fifth ticket, the trolley doors hadn't yet closed when cops nabbed him for not paying his fare-they'd spotted him earlier on the platform and, Clayton assumes, knew from experience that he wasn't a paying commuter.
At that point, Clayton was unemployed and struggling to kick alcoholism. With no car and no cash, he took his chances on the trolley. Fines on those unpaid tickets mounted. “Oh man, I'm going to the slammer,” he quipped in retrospect, “me and Scott Peterson.”
Last Wednesday, Clayton, who asked that we not use his last name, showed up to homeless court, held at St. Vincent de Paul in East Village. He had with him a letter verifying that he'd completed six months in a sober-living facility run by the Second Chance/STRIVE program. He'd also participated in job-training classes and had already landed a job as a telemarketer. In his wallet was a monthly trolley pass he paid for on his own. Clearing his record—and the fines attached to it—would be the last step in a six-month-long recovery process.
Once a month, roughly two-dozen formerly homeless men and women like Clayton gather at either St. Vincent de Paul or Vietnam Vets of San Diego on Pacific Highway for homeless court. And like Clayton, each participant has hooked up with a social-services agency that has enrolled them in a program to address whatever it was that landed them on the street in the first place: drug or alcohol addiction, mental health problems or lack of job skills, for example. The steps these folks have taken to get their lives in order count against the tickets, fines and subsequent warrants they may have accrued while living on the street, where getting caught digging in a trash can for food or recyclables means a ticket for, as the law puts it, “molesting a garbage can.”
The court handles only misdemeanors and infractions, such as trolley tickets or citations for loitering in public. There's the occasional petty theft and sometimes more absurd cases, like the guy in a wheelchair who dropped his cigarette and was cited for littering; or another guy on crutches who was cited for jaywalking. If a person makes it to homeless court, those infractions are easy to toss out, said public defender and homeless court founder Steve Binder—it's just getting that person to the point where homeless court's services can help them.
San Diego's homeless court, in its 15th year, was started by Binder as part of the annual Stand Down gathering for homeless war vets after he realized that one of the main issues plaguing the vets was outstanding legal problems. It's all part of the cycle: nowhere to go and you get a loitering ticket; you can't pay the fine for the ticket so why show up to court? Don't show up to court and you've got an outstanding warrant.
In 1999, homeless court went monthly. It has all the trappings of an actual court, including a presiding Superior Court judge, the amiable Peter Deddah. San Diego's homeless court was the first of its kind and has since become a flagship for at least a dozen other cities. It earned Binder a write-up in The New York Times last month-New York, so far, hasn't set up a similar program but the story didn't say why. Binder was also recently awarded a grant that allows him to travel to other cities to help them set up their own homeless courts.
An afternoon at homeless court at times seems less like a court of law than a graduation. Binder opens the court session by congratulating participants for the work and effort they've put into their recovery. He rarely stops smiling, and Deddah offers each participant a warm congratulations and firm handshake. Some participants even seem a little shocked when Deddah gently tells them their case has been dismissed.
Donovan Reading, wearing dress slacks and a coat and tie, was trying to clear a misdemeanor loitering charge, for which he spent five days in jail. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, brought on by watching PSA Flight 182 crash in North Park in 1978 from the playground of his elementary school.
“I was trying to stay out of trouble,” he said of the loitering charge, but had no place else to go that night. He's since found a spot at a halfway house and is getting help for his PTSD. A former sous chef, he's hoping to land a job at a restaurant. “This is like my graduation,” he said after leaving the makeshift courtroom. “I'll never look back.”