Something’s Been Cooking at the Clinic: The Beginning of Charlotte’s Specialty Court for the Homeless and Veterans

May 13, 2015

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.[1] 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.

Clinic students presenting research in November 2014.

Clinic students presenting research in November 2014.

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. [2] 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.

[1] For access to our research document, please email mclairedonnelly@gmail.com.

[2] 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=2713The segment regarding Specialty Court for the Homeless and Veterans begins around 1:29:48 and ends around 1:35:15.


An Old Problem, New Face

November 6, 2014

By Johnny Hollis

One of the oldest issues in our society is homelessness.  It affects every state, county, and city in our nation.  Studies show that nationally 19 out of every 10,000 people are homeless, while in individual states that number ranges from 8-106 out of every 10,000 people.  Causes of homelessness range from loss of employment, mental and physical changes in health, loss of loved ones, and other traumatic life events.[1]  While homelessness is decreasing in our country, in general, there is a rise in one particular area: within the transgender population of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community.[2]

What does “transgender” mean?

Transgender is an umbrella term that is used to describe a wide range of identities and experiences, and the term is used to refer to persons whose gender differs from what they were born as.[3]  Transgender persons often express themselves through their clothing, change of names, or medical procedures, all which help further their desire to live their identity.

What are the causes of homelessness among the transgender population?

Among experiencing discrimination from family members, in educational environments, and in the workplace, transgender individuals also experience discrimination in homeless shelters—the very place designed to assist them in times of crisis.  To start with, they are often isolated and alienated by family members at young ages, thus leaving them with no place to go.

Next, obtaining an education becomes hard because of the ridicule, immaturity, and bullying transgender individuals face from peers as well as faculty and staff.  According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 15% of those who identify as transgender drop out of school because of the pressures that derive from bullying.[4]

Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals against employment discrimination on the basis of race and color, as well as national origin, sex, and religion, the law fails to protect certain classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity.[5]   This leaves room for discrimination in the work place in the form of harassment by coworkers through taunting and/or isolation, as well as discrimination by employers through job application barriers, promotion denial, and by being fired.[6]

With the lack of familial support, education, and work, some transgender individuals are forced to either conform to the societal definition of gender and sexual orientation, or live in distressed conditions such as homelessness.

The Challenges of Being Transgender and Homeless

The difficulties and challenges that arise for transgender individuals are greater when they experience the effects of being homeless.  For example, even the task of finding a homeless shelter becomes quite tiresome.  Because transgender individuals identify opposite of their “born” gender, many shelters will not recognize identity over outward physical appearance.  This causes many to have to either live on the street, or participate in “survival sex” work in order to have a shelter for the night.[7]  Survival sex is defined as “involving individuals over the age of 18 who have traded sex acts (including prostitution, stripping, pornography, etc.) to meet the basic needs of survival (i.e., food, shelter, etc.) without the overt force, fraud or coercion of a trafficker, but who felt that their circumstances left little or no other option.”[8]

Homeless_-_American_Flag

What Can We Do to Advocate for Equality?

Interested advocates can begin helping this population by reaching out to local LGBTQ organizations in order to gain a better understanding of the LGBTQ community and the challenges that are faced within.  Local organizations such as Equality NC: North Carolina LGBT Organizations and the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund are good places to start.

Advocates can also engage locally by contacting their local homeless shelters and demanding that they create a safe, open, and inclusive environment for all people.  An inclusive environment would include safe zones, which are areas that are designated to prevent harassment and discrimination.  The shelters should also provide adequate information and resources that help facilitate individuals’ transition from homelessness to full independence again.

Furthermore, we can petition our state to prohibit any further discrimination within our K-12 and post-secondary schools.  We can not only petition against discrimination, but also petition for education relating to transgender and the LGBTQ community in totality.  We can also continue to reach out and lobby our local, state, and federal government requesting amendments to the language of our employment protection laws to include protections for sexual orientation as well as gender identity.

The Civil Rights Clinic began contributing to the cause by reaching out to the local community, and as a result, was able to persuade the City of Charlotte to include gender discrimination in their discrimination policy, and is assisting Cabarrus County in updating their policy as well.

Conclusion

Although homelessness currently affects many transgender individuals, it does not have to continue its climb to prevalence.  Through advocacy, education, and awareness we can eliminate the factors that contribute to homelessness within the LGBTQ community.

[1] http://www.homeaid.org/homeaid-stories/69/top-causes-of-homelessness

[2] http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/lgbtq-youth

[3] Lisa Mottet & John M. Ohle, Transitioning Our Shelters: A Guide to Making Homeless Shelters Safe for Transgender People 3, 7 (2003).

[4] http://transequality.org/Issues/education.html

[5] http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm

[6] http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/discrimination-against-transgender-workers

[7] Lisa Mottet & John M. Ohle, Transitioning Our Shelters: A Guide to Making Homeless Shelters Safe for Transgender People 4 (2003).

[8] http://www.covenanthouse.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Covenant-House-trafficking-study.pdf


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