Judge moves from courtroom to mission to help homeless

The Associated Press
Tuesday November 21, 2000

LOS ANGELES — A judge, bailiffs, clerks and lawyers moved out of the courtroom and into a homeless shelter Monday to hold the county’s first “homeless court.” 

In less than an hour, Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan cleared a docket filled with outstanding warrants and nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, all while working from a makeshift bench set up at the Union Rescue Mission downtown. 

“The Superior Court isn’t just here to pound people,” Tynan said before homeless court started. “We’re also here to help people out, especially because they are already helping themselves.” 

Homeless court works by knocking down legal hurdles for those trying to turn their lives around.  

Participants must be enrolled in a rehabilitation program for at least six months before they can apply to the city attorney to have their charges cleared. 

“It is really a blessing in my life,” said Johnnie Briggs, 43, after Tynan cleared seven traffic violations from his record. “It’s removed an obstacle that’s been holding me back. 

Briggs said he was homeless for six years and an alcohol and drug abuser before joining New Directions, a nonprofit organization that provides services for homeless veterans.  

He’s now looking forward to applying for a driver’s license. 

Ted Schirmer, an attorney for New Directions, said Briggs, who works as a hotel handyman, would have faced traffic fines of about $2,000 in regular court. 

“This gives them a real boost and lets them know they’re on the right path,” Schirmer said. 

The homeless court, which cleared 37 cases involving 24 defendants Monday, currently handles only infractions that have occurred in the city. The court, which hopes to operate monthly, will be expanded to outlying areas of Los Angeles County, said Judge Victor E. Chavez, presiding judge of the Superior Court. 

Officials in San Diego have been holding a monthly, mobile homeless court since October 1999. The San Diego homeless court, which grew from a program for military veterans, already has served more than 200 people and cleared more than 500 cases, said Steve Binder, a deputy public defender who founded the homeless court. 

“By going to the people who are in the shelter, you’re serving a stronger sense of justice and bringing order to society,” Binder said. “Instead of pushing the homeless further outside of society, we’re fostering their reintegration back into society.” 

A homeless court also is being considered in San Francisco, but it has been heavily criticized because it does not include defense lawyers, said Adam Arms, a staff attorney for the Coalition on Homelessness.