November 10, 2005
story & photos by HEIDI WALTERS
BUTCH HENDERSON seems a bit of a comfort magnet here at 35 W. 3rd Street in Eureka, where a mix of homeless and working poor people are slowly gathering this Thursday for the midday free meal provided by St. Vincent de Paul. Henderson, dressed in a green sweatshirt, black jeans, sneakers and a black knit cap with "Cowboys" stitched in blue thread on it, stands alone in a puddle of pavement away from the line of people forming against the building, talking with Les Rastorfer, who's sitting on a bench. And as he talks, people keep coming up to him for stuff. One young man, dressed nattily in black, wants a cigarette. Henderson gives him one. Another man -- a kid, really -- wants to borrow the striped, multicolored hacky sack Henderson grips in his right hand. He tosses it to him, following it with his eyes, then resumes talking.
Henderson, who is homeless, and Rastorfer, a case manager for Mobile Medical (a health-care truck that serves the homeless population), are discussing one of the more plaguing aspects of the already difficult life on the streets: The steady accumulation of police citations that adhere to homeless people for infractions that range from peeing in public to illegal camping to, for those who don't know about the free meals, petty thefts of food and other necessities from convenience stores. Why, just the other day, Henderson got a double whammy.
Right: Les Rastorfer is a case manager with the Mobile Medical Office, which brings health care to people living on the streets. He says a pile-up of petty fines can block a person from getting important medical benefits.
"That day -- the police were here all day, and they pulled a couple of people over who were just driving by," recalls Henderson. "I was sitting right here. I picked my pack up and got on my bike, and the cop was over there on his motorcycle. I was going to the [Rescue] Mission on 2nd Street to drop my pack off -- they let people leave their things there during the day. So, I got on my bike, and I went across the street and was riding to the Mission, and the cop came after me." He was ticketed twice: for riding on the wrong side of the street, and for having an outdated post office box number on his driver's license.
"It's a total waste of taxpayers' dollars," says Rastorfer. "There are house break-ins in Eureka, and the police are busting people for riding bicycles on the wrong side of the street. He's easy prey. The police like going around these areas where the homeless are. It's like shooting fish in a barrel."
The kid comes back and hands Henderson his hacky sack. He looks at it gravely.
"I've been playing for about four years," Henderson says. "It's something out here that gives me space, because out here, it's hard to have privacy."
Henderson has reddish long hair and a short beard and mustache. His light eyes are a little sad, his face prematurely drawn with long lines of a life hard-lived. He was born 45 years ago, on Nov. 22, in Eureka, and he's been homeless in his home town since 2000. Like many homeless people, he sleeps down by the bay. "Before I came out here, I always thought bums were lazy," he says. "But everybody has a story of one kind or another. Working people pick on us all the time. But it's not just that people are lazy. A lot of people are not capable of working."
His story? He worked hard, body-breaking jobs for years, 60- to 90-hour weeks sometimes, including 17 years with Eureka Fisheries. The jobs came and went. For 10 years he lived and worked in Phoenix, where his brother lives. One night, his house was burgled and the invader bashed in his face. It was a turning point, and he came back to his home town. But he'd been declining, physically, anyway. His legs and back ache intolerably now and he finds it hard to get up in the morning. Once while working a night job, he says, "somebody went like this" -- he sticks his arm out straight, pinches his fingers together and shakes his hand like he's holding a baggie. It was meth, he got hooked, and life just got harder.
Still, listening to Henderson, you get a sense he's on an upward swing. He's going to physical therapy now, he's struggling to quit meth, and he has a "significant other" he met a year ago. "Her kids call me 'Dad.'" She and the kids are in the M.A.C. -- the transitional-living Multiple Assistance Center -- and she has saved up enough money for them to rent a place together as a family. "We're filling out applications," Henderson says.
This is where the bicycle citations could cause trouble, if Henderson doesn't deal with them. And that's where a new concept, for Humboldt County anyway, could come in handy. It's called "homeless court."
Everybody, at some point, has probably committed an "infraction" or maybe even a misdemeanor. Riding a bike on the wrong side of the street, like Henderson did. Or forgetting to update the address on that driver's license. Maybe, even, sitting on a bench in public after drinking a few. And every day, hordes of people -- housed and unhoused -- let their dogs wander off-leash in the Arcata Community Forest. Others let their dogs sit down in the Arcata Plaza (they're supposed to keep moving). These are all citable offenses, usually dealt with by an appearance in court and payment of a fine.
But some infractions and misdemeanors might stem from the condition of being homeless, says Steve Binder, a deputy public defender in San Diego who co-founded the nation's first homeless court, in San Diego County in 1989. "Most of the offenses the homeless folks bring into court are public nuisance offenses," Binder told Michael Twombly in a taped interview earlier this year. (Twombly is a board member of the Humboldt All Faith Partnership, which runs the nonprofit, private Arcata Night Shelter.) "They are the result of their being homeless. They might be 'sleeping in public' or 'drinking in public' or 'peeing in public' -- things we do in the privacy of our homes, they do outside because they have no other options. Additionally, you'll find petty thefts [of food], because people might be looking to survive. Or you'll find people doing drugs, whether it is a way of self-medicating or just a way of surviving on the street. We're not trying to condone that." Rather, homeless court tries to engage a person, with the community's help, in finding a way out of the homeless situation.
Fact is, Binder reiterated last week, most homeless people don't deal with the tickets they get from the police, either because they don't have the money to pay the fines, or they're afraid of being jailed so they avoid going to court. As the tickets and warrants for failure to appear in court multiply, their fears increase. Often, homeless people will just tear up these pesky "notices to appear" or shove them into the bottom of a backpack to be forgotten. And then the citations become red flags to prospective employers and landlords. Also, says Rastorfer, who helps people get medical coverage, a simple citation, ignored, can keep a person from receiving Social Security Insurance and medical benefits. "You can go from $900 a month and medical coverage, if you're on SSI, to nothing," he says. "I've seen a lot of people go through a lot of misery over something that was insignificant." For a person with diabetes, for instance -- a common ailment on and off the street -- loss of medical coverage can even mean death.
But in "homeless court," all efforts to get one's life back together are put on the table, and the judge views those and usually says, "case dismissed."
Homeless court, says Binder, takes "away the traditional court sanctions of fines, public work service and threat of custody, and, instead, people receive credit for the positive things they're doing to get their life back together. Those can be attending AA meetings, or training and searching for employment. And the judge has proof of that up front. And when the court actually recognizes what that person has done in the program, the person actually sees that it is valuable." That boosts self-esteem. "Because, when you get citation after citation, and people are telling you to move on, you feel worthless."
Binder says he recognized a need for an alternative way of dealing with homeless people and their citations when he was just starting out in the public defender's office. He noticed an endless train of minor offenses: "illegal lodging citations, sleeping under bridges, sleeping on a sidewalk, sleeping in a doorway or in a field or a canyon. There was no place to stay, and there were not enough beds to house the homeless folks. The shelters were turning away folks. And some of these people would be standing there [in court] with their worldly belongings on their shoulders." That, and a survey of homeless veterans who showed their biggest need was resolution of outstanding bench warrants, spawned the homeless court, held at first in a handball court at the county's annual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans -- a bazaar of social and medical services. "In the first four years, 942 homeless veterans resolved 4,895 cases." San Diego's homeless court now is held monthly, alternating between two homeless shelters, for all homeless people.
Homeless court is an alternative way for a homeless person to tackle minor but niggling legal problems without having to face a fine-wielding, jail-threatening judge in a traditional courtroom. (Charges of major offenses, such as assault, drug dealing or domestic violence, would remain the purview of regular court.) For example -- and Humboldt's legal team is still working out the details -- if someone is busted for being drunk in public, she might agree to go to five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and perform community service at one of the homeless service facilities. Or if a homeless person is cited for stealing food, he might agree to seek out a homeless service facility and learn about where to get free food. If he's cited for loitering, he might agree to enroll in a job-training course.
Humboldt County's homeless court is tentatively scheduled to hold its first session at 3 p.m. on Jan. 13, a Friday, at St. Vincent de Paul in Eureka, and to meet thereafter once a month, perhaps even in other areas of the county.
The legal team
Left: Humboldt County Judge John Feeney is looking forward to presiding in homeless court, where defendants charged with infractions and misdemeanors will be given credit for having completed programs aimed at bettering their lives.
Judge Feeney, who presides in Humboldt County Superior Court, Courtoom 8, was born and raised in San Diego and says he has "been admiring their homeless court from afar for years." So when Christina Allbright, a deputy public defender in the main public defender's office, and Tiffany St. Claire-King, an attorney in the county's Alternate Conflict Counsel office, asked at a California judges' meeting if any local judge would be interested in holding a homeless court in Eureka, he was ready. In September, he went down to San Diego to observe a homeless court. "I was impressed," he says. "In the traditional courtroom, the judge sits up high and looks down on you. In the homeless court, the judge was eye-to-eye [with the homeless defendant] and it was just much more personal." The judge still wears a robe and is attended by a bailiff, clerk and court reporter -- it's a real court of law, even if the setting's relaxed, and the defendant has the same constitutional rights as in a traditional court setting. But, most important, nobody gets taken into custody at homeless court.
"For the most part, the DA and the defense attorney will work out ahead of time how the case is going to be handled, and I'll likely call the case and say what the disposition's going to be," says Feeney. "They'll have, say, three months to do it, and then they come back with proof they completed the program."
Feeney says he expects homeless court to save the county money and time. It'll clear up old cases, and likely keep some people from re-entering the court system. Homeless court will be conducted by existing staff within normal business hours, with court just being diverted once a month to a homeless provider setting.
"The court -- we see this as a community outreach to assist these folks," Feeney says. He compares it to a successful pilot mental health court the county had for four years, until state funds dried up, and to the county's existing drug court. "Courts, in general, are going more toward rehabilitation than the punitive, which is good."
Feeney allows that homeless court alone isn't going to eliminate homelessness. "Many homeless people have substance abuse issues and mental illness, and for those people it's more complicated," he says. "But I think for some homeless people, they just need a helping hand. The way I look at it, even if we only help 10 to 20 people a year, that would be great."
Right: Christina Allbright (right, foreground), a Humboldt County deputy public defender, and Tiffany St. Claire-King (right, back), an attorney with the county's alternate conflict counsel office, talk with homeless Eureka natives Jody Kiesner (left, foreground), Robert Wayne Printy (middle) and Chester Bighead (back).
Allbright and St. Claire-King likely will form the core defense team for homeless court. For St. Claire-King, it was at a meeting earlier this year between judges, district attorneys, public defenders and law enforcement to talk about the regular court process that she found the impetus to push for a homeless court here. "Several law enforcement officers expressed frustration about writing citations for people without addresses, and then they would just get lost and nothing would be done," says St. Claire-King. Since she had worked with Sacramento County's homeless court, she knew enough to start promoting the idea. Allbright was also at that meeting where police officers told the judges that "people are just tearing up tickets ... and the court doesn't even issue warrants sometimes to people they've cited" because the people don't have addresses. "I think [homeless court] is going to make the police happy, because they'll get to see some accountability."
It might be tempting, at this point, to wonder if maybe the police could just lighten up on the homeless folks. But that isn't the way it works, says Arcata Police Captain Tom Chapman, namely because the police don't distinguish between housed and houseless people -- that would be profiling. As Eureka Police Captain Murl Harpham puts it, "Our job is to write the ticket -- just enforce the law."
That said, Chapman is willing to produce statistics, upon request, based on types of offenses -- again, not linking them to a person's housing status. This year, from January to date, for example, the Arcata Police Department issued 113 tickets for illegal camping within the city limits, and seven tickets for urinating in public. Once a citation is issued, the police department sends a copy of the citation to the district attorney or city attorney's office, depending on the charge. The person cited is supposed to contact the court within 30 days to either enter a plea or pay a fine.
Binder agrees it isn't the cops' problem. "I don't badmouth the police," he says. "They're caught in the middle of a social problem, and they have to answer to the citizens."
Still, the cops seem to like the idea of homeless court. "Conceptually, I like the idea," says Arcata's Chapman. "How do we fine somebody $500, or $1,000, if they have absolutely no means to pay? It makes no sense." Harpham says the idea is "great." "At least something will be getting done," he says. "We had one guy who had about 60 tickets and he'd never been to court."
Equally frustrated have been the homeless people who do happen to make it to court, says public defender Allbright. Homeless court will give some of these folks "doable consequences" as opposed to punitive consequences. "We always tell people they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps," says Allbright. "But we forget that some people don't have bootstraps. This is going to give them bootstraps."
The No. 1 bootstrap dealers will be the homeless services providers, such as St. Vincent de Paul, Arcata Endeavor, Arcata Night Shelter, Mobile Medical, the M.A.C. and the Eureka Rescue Mission. Providers will refer a person to homeless court and facilitate the process with the legal team. Michael Twombly and Susie Van Kirk are board members of the Humboldt All Faith Partnership, which runs the private non-profit Arcata Night Shelter (the only emergency shelter in Arcata), and likely will be at the forefront of the new court program. Around about when the judges, attorneys and cops were creeping up on the idea of a homeless court, Twombly was already a few steps ahead of them. Twombly has worked with homeless people and the mentally ill for more than a decade, and says he'd been reading about homeless court when, one night, something happened that convinced him it was needed in Humboldt County.
"I was driving back to Arcata from teaching substance abuse courses at the jail in Eureka," he recalls. "It was dark, it was raining, it was cold. And I picked up this guy. He'd been working all day -- he's a painter. I said, 'Wow, that's hard to do without a car.' And he said, 'I got in a twist with a fix-it ticket for my taillight.' He said he didn't pay the fine, and then he got cited again for the same taillight. He didn't have any money to fix it. Then he was issued a warrant. So, he couldn't get his car registered. So, then he drove an unregistered car to work, and he got three more tickets for failure to register. He owed $1,000 by then. So then he stopped driving. And now he was hitchhiking to work to feed his family. And I thought, there really ought to be an amnesty day for this guy."
Twombly called Binder to talk to him about San Diego's homeless court, and Van Kirk wrote to Judge Feeney. Twombly went to San Diego to observe homeless court in action, recorded interviews with Binder and another attorney, then came back and joined forces with the players in the traditional court system -- and Humboldt County's homeless court was born.
Everyone seems excited, but perhaps no one is looking forward to homeless court more than the mild-mannered Judge Feeney. His face shines when he talks about his favorite moments of being a judge. "Weddings," he says, "and I really enjoyed running that mental health court. It was just so gratifying to see people turn their lives around." Yes, gentle Feeney, who says he loves being a judge because he gets "to do the right thing," seems just the right kind of judge to wander down to St. Vinny's for a Friday afternoon clean-that-slate session.
"I feel empathy for folks who, for financial, or physical reasons, or because of drug abuse or mental illness, are homeless," Feeney says. "They're no different from all of us. A lot of us could be homeless -- just one bad turn. This is going to sound corny, but I think our community is only as strong as the less advantaged in our community."
Comments? Write a letter!
© Copyright 2005, North Coast Journal, Inc.