Homeless Court: A Helping Hand for Those Trying to Escape Legal Quicksand

San Diego pioneered legal aid for people experiencing homelessness; now a state judicial work group hopes to expand it

White-collar defendants charged with felonies often have outs. Deep pocketed clients can afford lawyers armed with experience, connections and plea-bargain strategies.

Legal options for people living on the streets are few and far between.

There is, however, one common-sense idea that found a place inside the maze of the San Diego legal system: Homeless Court.

Homeless Court is a 30-year-old institutionalized process that can waive misdemeanor court fines and fees for people who participate in court-authorized life-improvement programs.

Why? Far too often, unpayable court costs are an insurmountable roadblock for people experiencing homelessness while trying to get their lives back on track.

Homeless Court is an unheralded, revolutionarily simple idea that originated in San Diego County. It’s been copied sporadically up and down California, and across the United States. Courts in other countries have enquired about it.

In November, a San Diego Superior Court Judge participated in the first-ever Work Group on Homelessness for the Judicial Council of California (the rule-making arm of the state court system).

The Work Group made several recommendations (more details below) on how the judicial branch might work with the Governor, the Legislature and other entities to address homelessness.

A significant part of that report to the state’s Chief Justice: a call for a uniform spread and significant funding for more Homeless Courts throughout the state.

Why Have Homeless Court?

Lloyd Ewers benefitted from participating in Homeless Court. (Courtesy photo.)

Waiving accumulated misdemeanor court fees for people experiencing homelessness is pragmatic, say observers close to the process.

If you can’t afford a $2.50 trolley ticket, it also stands to reason you can’t pay the $25 fine for riding illegally. Nor is it likely you can scrape together the hundreds of dollars in late fees that quickly accrue.

On one hand, the accumulative accounting process of fee collection clogs the whole court docket. These fines rarely get paid—but still require oversight and churn up staff man-hours.

Then there’s the lived-experience side of those tickets. For anyone who’s unsheltered and battling addiction, disability or a host of other issues, court fines and fees are a black hole that keeps getting deeper.

Lloyd Ewers experienced it first-hand. He spent part of 2019 in jail for grand theft auto. After he got out, the North County native found a job working in the sheet metal industry. During the pandemic, however, Ewers got laid off.

Losing his job caused him to resume abusing drugs, he says. He landed behind bars a second time, at the beginning of 2021.

This time when he got out, Ewers went straight to the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center—first in downtown and then to the new center in Otay Mesa.

Along with participating in a work-therapy program, he trained on the intake desk, helping others get received into the program.

Ewers was getting his life back together. The Salvation Army offered him a full-time job. One problem: Blemishes came up during a background check.

“I had an $800 fine from the DMV from 2019,” Ewers says. “I also had a ticket for smoking on the beach. And a trolley ticket. I couldn’t pay those fees so I couldn’t get my license and be cleared to get the job as an intake coordinator.”

He felt immobilized.

That’s where the Homeless Court stepped in. Sponsored by the Salvation Army, his case was submitted into the process. It took a few months, but based on his personal progress, the Court waived Ewers’ fines. With a clear record, he got his driver’s license and is now employed.

Ewers is grateful and relieved.

“In regular court, you’re an offender,” he says. “In Homeless Court, they see the whole picture. They see you’re trying to turn things around. It got me back to work. It also cleared my conscious about those fines hanging over my head.”

It’s estimated thousands of participants have had tens of thousands of tickets waived by the local program.

Homeless Court Founder Steve Binder

Steve Binder receiving an award from California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. (Courtesy photo)

In 1989, Steve Binder was a brand-new attorney in the recently-formed San Diego Public Defender’s Office. He took notice of the confusion and despair emanating from people experiencing homelessness coming in and out of court.

Binder says everybody—clients, prosecutors and judges—were dismayed by seeing the same people in the courtroom over and over.

“They’d come in with a $100 fine,” he says. “Next time it would be $300. And then $500…” Binder sighs as he recalls the scene 30 years ago.

His frustration led him to attend homelessness subcommittee meetings of the local bar association. He sat in on numerous forums before hearing a report from the founders of Stand Down.

Stand Down is an annual event created in 1988 by Veterans Village of San Diego. It brings a variety of services to one site to aid veterans who are unemployed, homeless or on the precipice of homelessness.

“Stand Down had found all these people with legal issues,” Binder says. “They had more than 100 people with outstanding warrants. It was more than double the request for any other service—dental, employment, anything.”

Binder took this information to the court’s presiding judge.

He says the judge politely announced: “We’re open five days a week, eight hours a day. Tell them to come in and we’ll take care of them.”

It was a tone deaf response.

Binder had discovered homeless veterans were frustratingly stuck in a cycle of mistrust toward the courts. They’d get fined, couldn’t pay and were placed in custody. Then they were released and the cycle would repeat. And repeat.

Why walk willingly into court if it was likely you were going to be arrested?

After partnering with VVSD and Stand Down, Binder met with local prosecutors. They talked about the mostly public nuisance offenses in play that had become obstacles to the vets reintegrating into communities.

Binder and the prosecutors’ office developed an understanding. Veterans who were taking advantage of services to turn their lives around—like the VA Employment Development Department—could use that to reconcile the fines and fees instituted by the court.

That led to the first Homeless Court taking place at Stand Down in 1989. It was held on an outdoor sports field at San Diego High School. A judge stood at eye-level behind a lectern.

On a nearby table, clerks shuffled through collected piles of case files.

A public defender presented the case of the first veteran. His recent progress in a program was duly noted.

The prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges.

“So ordered,” the judge declared.

“There was an audible gasp,” Binder recalls. “From the veteran and from the providers of Stand Down. Everyone expected the police to show up and take people away, but that isn’t what happened.”

Nobody went to jail. An institution has been founded.

Participation in Homeless Court expanded from veterans that year to homeless and battered women. Today, it includes the general homeless population.

Homeless Court at Stand Down is still an annual event. In 1999, it grew to include monthly hearings, alternately held at VVSD and Father Joe’s Villages.

Matt Wechter: Carrying On

Matt Wechter is the point person for San Diego’s Homeless Court.

It should be noted: Homeless Court is only used to waive misdemeanor fines. Loitering. Drunk in public. Trolley-related fines and the like. It can’t be invoked for cases that involve felonies, DUIs or domestic violence.

During the pandemic, Homeless Court paused briefly, then restarted electronically.

It’s still effective, but not exactly the same, says Matt Wechter. A public defender for more than a decade, he took over as Homeless Court point person when Binder retired in 2018.

While fortuitous that the maximum 60 participants per month can still seek to get their fines waived, Wechter says it’s a shame COVID eliminated the courtroom scenario.

“Done in person, Homeless Court is engaging and it’s recognition for a lot of folks,” says Wechter.

He hopes that by early 2022, Homeless Court will be back in person. If and when that happens, judges will again have the option to read from the letter of advocacy written by each participant’s supervising program sponsor.

Those letters have helped serve to build trust between sponsoring programs (which have grown to include about 100 organizations) and the Homeless Court’s Steering Committee. In turn, that’s fostered a trusting relationship with the court and the prosecutors in the City Attorney’s Office.

“Participants in this program have done good work,” Wechter says. “Standing there in court helps recognize their positive trajectory. And how they are removing barriers in their lives.”

Some judges acknowledge the letters during the process, he says. Others shake hands with the participants and a few offer hugs.

Wechter says San Diego Superior Court Judge Desiree Bruce-Lyle is one judge who makes a point of congratulating participants and referring to what he calls each person’s “brag list.”

Judge Desiree Bruce-Lyle

Judge Desiree Bruce-Lyle in her downtown courtroom.

Bruce-Lyle was appointed to the bench in 2001. Pre-COVID, she presided over Homeless Court, and still supervises it. She’s also the local judge who participated in the 11-member Work Group on Homelessness that reported to the Judicial Council of California.

Meeting remotely from November 2020 to August 2021, the Work Group examined—from top to bottom—how laws, court services and the judicial branch could better address homelessness.

The Work Group’s took advantage of local, statewide and national resources. Its report focused on four action areas:

  • Improve unlawful detainer proceedings to reduce homelessness and promote housing stability.
  • Reduce barriers to housing, and help identify housing resources.
  • Utilize technology and improve court procedures, communications, and information to increase access to justice for court users regardless of their housing circumstances
  • Strengthen education, outreach, and civic engagement on issues pertaining to homelessness.

Because of her familiarity with Homeless Court, Bruce-Lyle led a subgroup on the topic.

“I have a passion for Homeless Court and collaborative courts,” she says. “These are valuable, important, essential services for several groups of people, many of whom are homeless.”

She’s observed a multitude of cases where a lack of resources for people experiencing homelessness, or having a record that shows incarceration, holds a person back while they attempt to navigate the courts and re-enter society.

“These are things the court needs to be aware of,” Bruce-Lyle says. “Sadly, we do have some tethers. But when we are aware of cases involving homelessness, we can still partner with other entities and other branches of government to take care of certain things.”

The judge hopes the result of the Work Group’s report is that courts all over the state will be aware of, and will be looking for, people in a state of homelessness.

“The Judicial Council is the body that sets the tone and the curriculum for judges’ education,” she says. “It’s important for judges to be educated and sensitive to this when folks walk into their courtrooms.”

Bruce-Lyle knows a Work Group report isn’t a magic wand. And that any programming that might aid more people experiencing homelessness from inside the court system will require funding.

It would be a great investment, she says.

Paying genuine attention to these issue, Bruce-Lyle believes, is the best way to stop people with no safety net from getting stuck in a courtroom’s revolving door of despair. SDSun

[COVER PHOTO: Judge Desiree Bruce-Lyle congratulates a participant during Homeless Court. (Photo by Steve Binder)]


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