By: M. Claire Donnelly
FINALLY, it is time for the Clinic to share a little project we have been working on all semester! As part of Charlotte’s 10-Year Implementation Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness, a team of community leaders approached the Clinic in September 2014. Members of the team included representatives from Helping Homeless to Housing, Urban Ministry Center, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, the Public Defender’s Office, among others. These leaders, who knew the Clinic from our successful efforts with the Ban the Box movement, were interested in the Clinic getting on board with an initiative to start a homeless court here in Charlotte that would serve all of Mecklenburg County.
A homeless court is a specialty court designed specifically for individuals who are homeless and are charged with a status offense based on their homelessness. These charges include public urination, solicitation, trespass, etc. For many of these individuals, getting to the courthouse and keeping up with court dates is nearly impossible. Even if these individuals do make it to their court date, research shows that the criminal justice system is not meeting their needs and the cycle of homelessness continues.
The Clinic was immediately interested in the project and decided that this something we should take on. During the Fall 2014 semester, we completed research that we presented to the team of leaders at the end of November. In our research, we looked at 9 homeless court models across the country, from Orange County, NC, to Birmingham, AL, to San Diego, CA, and more. Each court was unique in its own way, and we quickly found that like the courts we researched, our court in Charlotte-Mecklenburg should be tailored to our court system’s and our client’s needs.
San Diego began the first Homeless Court program in 1989, and has since provided the model program for other courts that have begun across the nation. The American Bar Association (ABA) used San Diego’s model in their adopted proposal for homeless courts. According to the ABA, “[t]o counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, this court combines a progressive plea bargain system, an alternative sentencing structure, and proof of community-based shelter program activities to address a range of misdemeanor offenses. Homeless courts expand access to justice, reduce court costs, and help homeless people reintegrate into society and lead productive lives.”
Most homeless court models represent a marriage between service providers, community volunteers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. Typically, this team of people works together to figure out the needs of the homeless individual, whether the need is employment or housing or education or addiction services, etc. Then, the team creates a “sentence” related to that need, and if they follow through with their sentence, they get a dismissal for the charge.
During the Spring 2015 semester, the Clinic met with the team again and discussed next steps. It was decided that the court initiative would be tentatively named “Specialty Court for the Homeless and Veterans.” A proposal was written to submit to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), who we hope will eventually approve the court in their budget. We attended two BOCC Public Policy workshops this semester, and there were optimistic comments regarding the start of a court.  The Clinic plans to continue assisting in any way we can to get the City on board with the court as soon as possible!
We also got a chance to travel to Orange County’s Outreach Court in the spring semester, which took place at the courthouse in Chapel Hill. Our team was WOW-ed by this visit and it really got us excited for the potential of a court of this type in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. It was absolutely incredible to see that just down the road, a court of this type was not only so successful, but so compassionate for their clients.
The Clinic has tremendous hope for the start of this court here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and plans to stay actively involved in keeping it going. Keep following the blog as we provide updates on our progress!
For a great article and updated information on Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s efforts to end homelessness, see this article in the Observer from May 4, 2015.
 For access to our research document, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The meeting where Commissioners discussed the proposal occurred on April 28, 2015, and can be viewed at: http://mecklenburg.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=44&clip_id=2713. The segment regarding Specialty Court for the Homeless and Veterans begins around 1:29:48 and ends around 1:35:15.