A man sleeps in a parking space on Greene Street in Columbia. Photo by Sean Rayford.
Imagine a justice system that, instead of tossing homeless people in jail and then re-releasing them onto the streets, could do something to break their cycle of homelessness.
That’s the goal of a homeless court — basically a diversionary program that would help nonviolent offenders avoid jail and criminal records if they participate in certain programs. At least 25 municipalities around the country are operating homeless courts modeled on a City of San Diego program launched in 1989, according to the American Bar Association.
Columbia City Council unanimously voted Sept. 3 to explore creating a homeless court for Columbia — an idea put forward by Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.
She compares homeless court to pre-trial intervention, drug court and domestic violence court — all programs that try to change behaviors.
“It’s more of an intervention,” Devine says.
Devine has been a major critic of a pair of proposals by fellow Councilman Cameron Runyan for dealing with the homeless — proposals that gained national attention, including inaccurate reports that Columbia had actually adopted the proposals and criminalized homelessness. Under Runyan’s “Columbia Cares” proposal, the city would tighten laws on panhandling and loitering, and present repeat violators with three choices: a treatment program, leaving town or going to jail. He also proposed a privately run, out-of-town homeless facility called “The Retreat.”
Ironically, the homeless court is supposed to achieve what Runyan has said all along he wants to do: help people out of homelessness.
But whereas Runyan’s plan would have empowered cops to arrest repeat offenders if they didn’t head to The Retreat —Runyan speaks often of “tough love” — a homeless court would bring together prosecutors, defense attorneys and homeless offenders, along with caseworkers, to offer alternatives to jail or a criminal record for certain offenses, particularly those associated with homelessness: loitering, panhandling, trespassing, public drunkenness.
“You can’t force them into it, but you can have a carrot,” Devine says, to give people an incentive to change.
“It’s trying to recognize that some people may be committing crimes not because they’re [criminals],” she says, “but because the mere circumstances that they live in force them into criminal behaviors.” A criminal record can make it harder for people to find housing and jobs, continuing the cycle.
The idea gets a tentative thumbs up from Fielding Pringle, Richland County’s chief public defender.
“Diversionary courts are wonderful,” she says. “The more of those you can have, the better.”
However, Pringle says she hopes the court wouldn’t be accompanied by a crackdown on homeless people.
“A homeless court is a wonderful thing, but not if you’re just arresting people to fill it,” Pringle says.
Council has asked the city’s administrative judge, Dana Turner, to explore how the city could implement the idea. And of course, there would be plenty of details to work out. Location is one: Some cities hold homeless court at a shelter, others at some alternate location. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, homeless people often skip traditional court appearances, mindful that their appearance might not be suitable for a courtroom and reluctant to abandon their belongings.
Cost is another unknown. Devine says she thinks the court can get up and running without special funding, simply by working collaboratively with some other agencies. Eventually, it may need funding to pay a caseworker or two, she says.
The homeless court is just one of several fixes Council made Sept. 3 to its plans for dealing with what some say is a recent surge in homelessness in Columbia.
In a rare move, Council voted unanimously to rescind its Aug. 13 vote on a plan to deal with the homeless. That controversial vote had come after 2 a.m., and council members have disagreed ever since on what exactly they adopted.
In its place, Council approved a carefully detailed set of measures. They’ll open the city’s emergency winter shelter at the end of September, under contract with Christ Central Ministries, which has agreed to cover costs above the $500,000 the city will pay toward running the shelter. Among the details still to be worked out: whether the shelter will have air conditioning.
They also voted to adopt some recommendations of a Homeless Advisory Committee appointed by the previous city manager: creating public bathrooms downtown; putting trash cans along Calhoun Street; educating people about the city’s loitering and panhandling laws; and putting up more No Loitering and No Panhandling signs.
Mayor Steve Benjamin tried to include a measure to ban or reduce the sale of single-serving alcoholic beverages in the downtown area. But after a stern look from the city attorney and a warning that they’d have to discuss such a measure in closed executive session, Benjamin dropped that idea.
As for a long-term solution to homelessness in Columbia, Council agreed to adopt the six broad goals laid out in Runyan’s Columbia Cares plan, but didn’t take up any of the specific measures that have raised alarm, like The Retreat.
Councilman Moe Baddourah made sure of that before the vote.
“I just want to make sure we’re clear that the six goals part of the solution, it would not be a Retreat,” he said. “It would not [be] like a Hotel California — you can check in, you can’t check out?”
Right, said Council members. No Retreat.
Runyan said little during the Sept. 3 meeting. He did apologize for having brought up “the issue of forced confinement” of homeless people. “I will take responsibility for that getting into the public discourse,” he said. “That is not the desire. … We are not going to forcibly confine anyone.”
Council is scheduled to vote on a contract between the city and Christ Central Ministries at its Sept. 17 meeting. The proposed contract was not available by press time.
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