Homeless Courts: Recognizing Progress and Resolving Legal Issues that Often Accompany Homelessness

July 9, 2020

Sleeping, drinking, urinating in public, riding public transportation without fare, and a host of other acts that are legally deemed public nuisance offenses reflect life of people who live on the streets. Everyday activities you conduct in the privacy of your home, people experiencing homelessness must do outside, totally exposed. In the United States, people of color are not only disproportionately affected by poverty and housing instability, but they are also disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Poverty and homelessness are largely outgrowths of historic and current racial biases and discrimination embedded in our systems. Inequality in housing, education, health care, and wealth creation is inextricable from that which fuels police misconduct, mass incarceration of people of color, and the criminalization of poverty. Outstanding criminal charges (like trespassing, fines, fees, etc.) for actions like sleeping in public and others create real legal barriers to housing, employment, and stability. The American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty , and its Homeless Court Advisory Committee, work to decriminalize homelessness and remove these legal barriers to self-sufficiency by supporting homeless courts through developing resources, conducting technical assistance and trainings, and facilitating the replication of homeless courts across the country.

Homeless courts began in 1989 at Stand Down, a yearly three-day homeless veteran event held in San Diego, California. Since its inception, homeless court has evolved, and the model has spread to 70 communities across the country. While the frequency, types of cases, and location varies depending upon each community’s particular needs, the ABA homeless court model is a special court session convened in homeless shelters, for defendants experiencing homelessness who are looking to resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses, traffic citations, and warrants. Homeless courts operate nationwide, facilitating partnerships among courts, shelters, service agencies, participants, and attorneys to resolve problems that accompany homelessness, using practical solutions rather than fines or jail time.

Homeless court referrals originate in shelters and service agencies after a participant has completed goals from an action plan. The case is reviewed, advocacy letters written by case managers are read, and an agreement is reached to dismiss cases and eliminate fines and custody. Designed for efficiency, most cases are heard and resolved in one hearing. For example, in 2018, the San Diego Homeless Court Program reported that 720 clients were assisted in processing 4,226 cases. Of those cases, 3,272 involved collection fees, totaling in $2,038,100, satisfied by alternative sentencing.

The model’s greatest achievement is the collaboration between service agencies and individuals experiencing homelessness, which reduces the need for further involvement with the criminal justice system and invests in stronger community. Homeless courts are not statutory or court-mandated programs; rather, people experiencing homelessness voluntarily sign up at their local shelter. In taking this initiative, participants can search for justice and reconciliation of their past and future.

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty leads the charge to implement homeless courts nationwide, having helped develop nearly 70 current programs and counting. The ABA supports homeless court programming through policy, encouraging the creation and replication of homeless courts across the United States and outlining best practices for doing so. The Commission also convenes relevant stakeholders across the country; for example, at National Homeless Court Summit in San Diego, participants attended the training Taking the Court to Stand Down: Homeless Court at Stand Down , where they reviewed the history and development of the homeless court at Stand Down and discussed resources needed for replication in their own communities. The Commission is planning a follow-up national summit in Washington, DC, in Spring 2021, to provide the opportunity for nationwide judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, service providers, persons with lived experience, and more to discuss best practices for diversionary court programs that remove legal barriers to self-sufficiency. In addition to facilitating the Homeless Court Advisory Committee, the Commission maintains a national directory of currently operating homeless courts, a regional technical assistance directory, detailed resources , and a network platform to connect homeless courts, provide technical assistance, and foster replication.

The homeless court model is a key tool in responding to the special legal barriers to housing, employment, and stability that people experiencing homelessness face.

More information about the Commission, programming, and free technical assistance to start a homeless court program in your community is available online , via Commission Director Kelly Russo at Kelly.Russo@americanbar.org . You can also find us on social media at Twitter: @ABA_CHP and Facebook: @ABACHP.

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