Homeless People With Quality of Life Violations Face Arduous Court Process

After chasing off a rat by smacking a stick against my favorite bush and yelling, “Get out of here!” multiple times, I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, pulled my beanie over my eyes, and drifted off to a blissful sleep. Well, blissful until two large figures roused me from my slumber with car headlights shining in my direction, casting their ominous shadows on me. One of them said something, but I couldn’t make it out. In my frustration and my apathy towards whatever righteous cause these men had to wake me, I grumbled, “What do you want?!” Two park rangers wanted to cite me for illegal camping, which they did on a cold November night that I didn’t think could get any colder.

They assured me, “This is not a punitive action, we just want to make sure you receive the services you need. You are young; you don’t deserve to be homeless.” I was already receiving services, but that didn’t stop them from citing me.

I had until January to actually schedule a court date, so I put this citation, which I thought was asinine, in the back of my mind, as I continued to work with youth service providers to get off the street. Once I received a Single Room Occupancy through Taking It To The Streets in January—which is fortunately only a 10 minute walk from the court house —I finally made my way down to schedule a court date for January 18th. The clerk cautioned me that if I missed the court date, I would be fined $300!

“We just want to make sure you receive the services you need.” I remembered those words, and a bitter taste filled my mouth. This bitter taste was matched by frustration as I learned how ridiculous the court process is—was—to be. The first court appearance was simply to allow the judge to assess if this case was truly a matter for the District Attorney. In other words, to evaluate if I really am homeless, I think. This took the judge less than five minutes to reach a decision, and I was sent on my way to come back at a later date to speak with someone from the DA’s office.

In the interim, I began my involvement with the Coalition on Homelessness and asked about this court process. Scott, a citation defense counselor, explained everything step-by-step and assured me the case would be dismissed as long as I provided the judge with a specific form signed by one of the service providers I had received 20 hours of services from. Scott printed the form and handed it to me, but curiosity got the better of me. I didn’t have the form signed because I wanted to experience the entirety of the court process. That was a waste of time.

At my next court appearance on January 27th, the DA employee explained three options to me in the hall just outside the courtroom. I could contest the citation and have a trial, plead guilty and pay the fine, or receive 20 hours of services and have the case dismissed. Of course, I chose to receive 20 hours of services since I had already have received two months’ worth, and the DA staff handed me the same form that Scott did! Once court was in session, the Quality of Life cases—which included citations for sitting or lying down on the sidewalk—were called first, which is one great thing I can say about their process. When they called my case, the DA employee explained to the judge my decision, and the judge gave his approval and scheduled another court date. This took no more than five minutes, and then I was out the door.

I finally had an outreach counselor from Larkin Street Youth Services sign the form and returned to court on February 10th. Again, Quality of Life cases were called first. As, I presented before the judge, the new DA employee explained I had received services and am now housed. The judge seemed quite pleased and asked how Larkin Street Youth Services had helped me. I briefly explained the referrals, case management, and food I received. In only five minutes I was dismissed. After I left, I began to fear I misled the court to believe my progress was a result due to the judicial process.

Quite the contrary.

The judicial process only added to the chaos of my very busy schedule of traveling from service provider to service provider and mapping out trajectories to the self-sufficiency I envisioned, on top of dealing with the anxiety from the uncertainty of my situation, and my ever-present depression. In the beginning, going to court exacerbated my anxiety, but afterwards, it left me frustrated and annoyed. And I had it easy! Think of those who don’t have a room where they can leave their belongings, and those who have to walk greater distances to the courthouse house.

Think of those who couldn’t arrive to their court dates and received $300 fines. At every one of my court dates, names were called that went unanswered.

The current process for handling Quality of Life cases wastes precious time that should be spent bettering oneself and circumstances, as well as puts an unnecessary burden on the court. These cases seem unecessary and could be resolved much more efficiently by circumnavigating the court to an entity formed solely for resolving Quality of Life cases. Alternatively, police officers could replace citations with admonishments and refer individuals to service providers. Regardless of the decided solution, citations will remain an ineffective and costly measure. ≠