Law and Nonprofits

New court focuses on getting homeless back on track

Social and legal services communities collaborate on program geared toward Heartside residents.

August 8, 2014
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The new Community Outreach Court meets every other month at Mel Trotter Ministries. Courtesy Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project

A group of social services organizations is teaming with a group of legal service providers to help the homeless population resolve legal issues that may serve as one of the barriers to getting their lives back on track.

Heartside Ministry, Dégagé Ministries and Mel Trotter Ministries, along with the 61stDistrict Court, Cooley Law School and Community Legal Services of West Michigan, have joined together to essentially start a new court, known as the Community Outreach Court.

The organizations are part of the Heartside Neighbor Collaboration Project, which seeks to “be a catalyst for collaboration in the Heartside-downtown neighborhood.”

Judge Donald Passenger, 61stDistrict Court, said individuals experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness often have minor legal issues such as unpaid fines that can create big impediments for them.

“We are trying to help people whose life has become so disordered that they are in need of assistance to get reordered,” Passenger said.

“A lot of the issues that are court related are a fairly minor piece of their puzzle, but because they have allowed them to fall into neglect, they have a bench warrant and they are deathly afraid they are going to be arrested every time they walk across a street corner.”

Passenger said a bench warrant is the result of not following a court directive. For instance, if someone is cited with public intoxication and is asked to appear in court but fails to make that appearance, he or she will end up with a bench warrant for not complying with court orders.

The new Community Outreach Court, which meets every other month at Mel Trotter Ministries and is operated by volunteers from the various partner organizations, provides an opportunity for individuals to take responsibility for their actions and clear up bench warrants, outstanding fines or other charges.

“We use work program and community service hours extensively in our court in lieu of jail time,” Passenger explained.

“Very often on a (public nuisance) case, we might ask that they do some community service because financially they can’t contribute, so we are trying to get them to do that labor alternative.”

Passenger said a substantial portion of the community service work is conducted at the Kent County Recycling plant.

“Probably 80 percent of the work in recycling in this county is actually done in lieu of jail by citizens who’ve made a mistake,” he said.

Prior to the Community Outreach Court, homeless residents had limited options for even finding out what legal issues they faced.

“Many of our clients are not comfortable going into the court or the police station to even check if there is a warrant on them,” said Dennis VanKampen, vice president of programs at Mel Trotter. “The court is the last place they are going to go to check that.”

For these people, a neutral setting where there is no fear of arrest is essential, which is why each court session offers attendees the chance to conduct a record check to find out what legal issues they might have.

“They can set up agreements to work off community service hours or fines or whatever that might be,” VanKampen said. “They can also work with our agencies and the court to get things taken care of on their record so they can move forward.”

VanKampen said having unresolved legal issues creates barriers to finding housing and employment.

Since January, the Community Outreach Court has conducted 150 record checks; it has 14 program participants and one graduate.

“For me, the beauty of the program is the social service agencies are the ones that have the relationships with the people we serve, and they trust us,” said Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Dégagé Ministries. “When they can come to us and we can say, ‘We can help walk you through the process,’ they are much more likely to engage.

“It gives us the opportunity to sit down with them and say let’s work out a plan. It ends up being a win-win situation because they get their record cleared, but they also move forward in ways they otherwise would not have.”

While organizations like Community Legal Services have been around for a long time providing services to at-risk populations, Dustie DeVille, the organization’s executive director, said the Community Outreach Court is one more way to reach those in need of legal assistance.

“They don’t have many opportunities to do walk-ins to talk about what their legal issues may be, so that is one great thing we get to provide at Community Legal Services with this program,” she said.

Community Legal Services attends all the community outreach court hearings.

“We bring volunteer attorneys and we are available to anyone who comes in if they have a legal question about a particular case they are going through,” she said.

All of the participating organizations want people to realize that the individuals they are trying to help aren’t bad people, and their situations could happen to anyone.

“The average person we see isn’t a bad person,” Passenger said. “Just like you or I, something happened in their life where they made a poor decision and they are trying to find their way back from it. (For) some of them, it’s an easy way back, and some of them it’s very difficult because they keep having hurdles put in their way.

“We had one person come in and he had lost his wife and had a serious illness himself. He was thrown for a loop and all of a sudden found himself in a position he’d never dreamed he’d be in. He had to call on the agencies here to try and help him get his life back in order again. He’s made phenomenal steps toward that.”

Passenger said a key element to the program’s success is the commitment of the individual to making a change.

He said he has worked with people from all over West Michigan and as far away as Saginaw through the Community Outreach Court program.

While the court is the first of its kind in the area, the idea is becoming more common across the country. The Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project spent a good deal of time learning about a similar court in San Diego known as Homeless Court.

“I think ours is a little more expansive than any of the other ones we’ve seen,” Passenger said. “The other ones aren’t doing the warrant checks and bringing in legal services. As we got together and collaborated, we realized we had some strengths that others either didn’t have or weren’t doing, so it’s worked out really well.”

Passenger hopes to see the program continue to grow and would like to be able to hire a probation officer specifically for the program. He also noted he would like to see more businesses that are open to hiring employees with criminal records.

“Some places, like Cascade Engineering, are finding that people with criminal records, in some cases, turn out to be better workers because they understand what they lost,” he said.

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