LA County program offers solution for homeless community to clear legal issues, gives housing path

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Monday, May 20, 2024
LA program offers unhoused community solution to clear legal issues
Community Outreach Court takes place every third Thursday during the Skid Row Community ReFresh event to help homeless individuals with unresolved legal issues.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The Skid Row Community ReFresh spot is a public safe space where showers, restrooms and laundry facilities are available 24/7 to those who need it. Social service connections can also be made here, and every third Thursday of the month, court is in session.

"This is so important to bring the court where the clients are," explained Marcus M. Huntley, with the Department Of Collaborative and Restorative Justice for the L.A. Public Defender's Office.

Community Outreach Court, first launched as a pilot project in September of last year, is the first program of its kind in the city of Los Angeles. The program focuses on criminal misdemeanor matters affecting the homeless in a community setting through a laptop instead of a courtroom.

"The best thing is that we come to the client. We're here for the clients. They don't have to find us. They don't have to go to the courthouse to find us. We're here to find them," Huntley said.

"You can imagine when you're called for jury duty, it's hard enough for us to navigate the court system," said Cynthia Gonzalez, the supervising attorney for the Community Outreach Court. "Now imagine somebody that has to drag their home with them to get to court."

"When we put everybody together, we're able to get their records expunged," Huntley added. "We're able to get all these other services for them, they're able to get permanent housing after that. Something is very difficult when you have a criminal record."

Since its launch, Community Court has helped almost 200 people clear bench warrants, resolve outstanding fines and fees, or handle eligible misdemeanor cases and citations. These cases often remain in limbo because of a lack of trust in government or law enforcement.

"You never know if you're going to walk out of a courtroom, so this way at least you have more confidence that you're going out, you're going to walk out no matter what," explains Robert Johnson, who had his case heard in Community Outreach Court.

Brian Thorne agreed saying, "It's pretty cool, because I didn't have to go through the court rigmarole. I didn't have to stand around waiting for house, so yeah, it was pretty easy."

The person in court is the one who benefits most from this program, but the community at large benefits as well because with every case resolved, that's one more person likely to accept housing.

"When we're able to really clear those records and resolve that barrier, it's amazing what people can do after they're able to get beyond that," Huntley said.

"The client benefits, the community benefits, family benefits, the hospitals benefit because there's less hospitalizations as well, so yes, everybody benefits in this," Miriam Aviles of Project 180 said.

"The fact that we're here consistently every month with the same service providers, the same justice partners, it gives people a sense of familiarity, so there's trust, there's loyalty and there's also accountability," Gonzalez added.

Make no mistake, it is a real courtroom with requirements and consequences, but appearing virtually has made it more effective for those wanting to turn their lives around.

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