Voluntary Program
Participants voluntarily sign up for Homeless Court by requesting the service from a local homeless service provider. The participant voluntarily enters his or her homeless service agency. HC does not order participants into a program. If a participant who has signed up for HC decides to challenge his or her case, be it through a trial or motion, the case is set for a future date. The HC homeless participant is entitled to all protections afforded by due process of law. No one gives up the right to go to trial or pursue motions challenging the allegations against him or her.

Addresses Full Range of Misdemeanor Offenses
HC addresses all class C misdemeanor offenses within the City of Houston. These may include (but are not limited to) offenses of vagrancy, theft of services for failure to pay bus fare, traffic, or sleeping in a public park. HC recognizes people can overcome great obstacles and serious misdemeanor offenses and that these cases represent but one part of their lives, not the whole of the individual. Participants who appear in Homeless Court with serious misdemeanor cases submit proof of completion in significant program activities. In many circumstances, the participant’s program activities voluntarily exceed the demands a court might order for time served.

Alternative Sentencing
HC “sentences” participants to community service/activities in the shelter program. Local homeless shelters and agencies are the gateway for participants to enter this court. Homeless persons who want to appear before Homeless Court judges must sign up through one of a number of local shelters or homeless service providers.

The alternative sentencing structure is not coercive or punitive in nature, but rather is designed to assist homeless participants with reintegration into society. With alternative sentencing, HC gives “credit for time served” for the participant’s accomplishments in shelter activities. These activities include: life skills; chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings; computer and literacy classes; training or searching for employment; medical care (physical and mental); counseling; and volunteer work. These activities replace the traditional court sentence options of fines, public service work, or custody.

Homeless Court recognizes that each shelter has its own requirements and guidelines to allow residents access to Homeless Court. Some shelters require a resident to complete an assessment, an initial phase of the program, or attend specified meetings. The shelters introduce potential participants to HC through a variety of means. These agencies will address HC as an option after the homeless person has completed a certain course, phase or activity. Homeless Court does not interfere with shelter requirements, which may vary from program to program.

The shelters perform the assessments of clients and provide for their basic needs (food, clothing and shelter) while building the motivation and support that leads clients to the services which, in turn, fulfill the court orders for alternative sentencing. The shelter is in the best position to evaluate the client’s needs and design a plan with attainable goals and benefits. Most shelters offer emergency and transitional beds for their clients. Some provide independent living for clients who successfully complete their program. Other shelters provide basic services or support for clients seeking to access benefits, counseling, group meetings, an identification card, clean clothing and a meal. Clients who actively select their services and goals are more likely to benefit from the program. Homeless Court and shelters share the desire to empower the individual and enable that person to overcome the adversity that perpetuates or causes his or her homelessness.

The shelter representatives write advocacy letters for each client. The advocacy letter is symbolic of the relationship between the client and the agency while including a description of the program, the client’s start date and accomplishments, programs completed, and insight into the client’s efforts. A Homeless Court sentence strengthens and advances the efforts of the participant and agency representatives.

When participants work with agency representatives to identify and overcome the causes of their homelessness, they are in a stronger position to successfully comply with court orders. The quality, not the quantity, of the participant’s time spent in furtherance of the program is of paramount importance for a successful HC experience. Persons who sign up for HC are not limited to the sentencing alternatives provided by the homeless agency that referred him or her to court. Rather, the participant is encouraged to participate in a program that will best meet his or her needs.

No One Goes Into Custody
HC key players (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and homeless shelter/service agencies) agree, “No one goes into custody against his or her will.” This does not mean that the prosecution gives up its power to ask for custody, nor does the court relinquish its authority to incarcerate. Rather, this agreement acknowledges that the participants have committed offenses and have met court requirements through their work in their programs. This agreement respects the relationship and trust the homeless service agencies hold with the participants who appear before HC, and acknowledges that time spent working with these agencies is equivalent to, and more constructive than, time spent in custody.

Distinctions Between Traditional Court and Homeless Court
In Houston, the traditional court sentence for a municipal code violation is a fine of $300. In the traditional court setting, a defendant will receive a $50 “credit” against a fine for every day spent in custody. The defendant who spends two days in custody receives credit for a $100 fine. To satisfy a fine of $300, the court requires that a defendant spend 6 days in custody. Thirty days in custody is the equivalent of a $1,500.00 fine.

Typically, a HC participant has already been participating in a shelter program for at least 30 days (from the initial point of registration to the hearing date) when standing before the judge in Homeless Court. By this point, his or her level of activities in the shelter or a service agency exceeds the requirements of the traditional court order. While the program activities vary from one shelter to another, they usually involve a greater time commitment than traditional court orders and introspection for their participants. Program staff ensures that the homeless participants are already successful in their efforts to leave the streets before they enter the courtroom. These individuals are on the right track before they meet the judge.

Contact Scot More, Project Manager for more information.