The chronically homeless people of Santa Monica may have new-found hope to “get back on their feet” as a result of a new Homeless Community Court program aimed at helping them untangle their legal problems and providing “therapeutic justice.”

A special Santa Monica City Council meeting was called on the steps of Santa Monica City Hall Monday morning, July 3rd, to announce receipt of a grant from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to fund the Homeless Community Court for the Santa Monica “demonstration” project.

This court is aimed at benefiting the chronically homeless people of Santa Monica, a city that is home to 1,200 to 2,000 homeless people on any given day, according to Joel Bellman, press deputy to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Of these homeless people, approximately 20 to 40 percent are chronically homeless — having lived on the streets for many years — cycling repeatedly through law enforcement and the criminal justice system, Bellman said.

This becomes a vicious cycle and is often referred to as the “revolving door” effect.

“They don’t ever get out of their rut,” Bellman said of the chronically homeless cycled through the legal system. “We’re not solving anything if we’re treating them as ordinary offenders. They don’t get the help — the services.

“They don’t change. They’ve got nowhere to go. They still have their problems. We need to try to address those underlying causes.”

“A regular criminal court can’t address the unique needs of a homeless person the way a homeless court can,” said Yaroslavsky, who represents the Third Supervisorial District, which includes Santa Monica.

The court’s goal is to resolve the warrants and minor crime issues of the chronically homeless — such as tickets for jaywalking and loitering — and to compel them to seek city services and “get stability in their lives and be independent, instead of putting them in jail, which is not the prescription they need,” Yaroslavsky said.

“They would have their jail time waived and their warrants canceled in exchange for them going into some kind of rehab service program,” he said.

These services and programs include therapeutic beds at drug and alcohol recovery centers and psychological and psychiatric help, said Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager of Santa Monica.

“The idea of the community court is to use therapeutic justice as a gateway to services for chronically homeless people living in Santa Monica,” Vernez said. “The idea is that we link homeless people to therapeutic services that they need, stabilize them in therapeutic beds [at recovery centers] so that they can ‘graduate’ and ultimately be able to live in houses.”

This project has been in the works for about half a year, Vernez said.

“We had been working on the concept and trying to tailor what would be successful in Santa Monica since early this year,” Vernez said. “There was an opportunity for us to get a demonstration project funded and we were ready.”

The project is “starting small,” as it is a demonstration, but they hope to expand it to other areas, Vernez said.

“It is something that has worked in other parts of the country,” Yaroslavsky said. “Homeless courts will enable the criminal justice system to zero in on the human service needs of the homeless individual.”

Yaroslavsky pointed out that putting homeless people who are mentally ill in jail does not help them, the city or county, but putting homeless people in a treatment program and getting them the help they need “will hasten the day where they can be independent.”

In addition to benefiting the chronically homeless, this project has the potential to reduce costs tremendously for the city and county, officials believe.

“The city and county just spend a fortune in this process that doesn’t accomplish anything because these people never get better,” Bellman said.

A conservative estimate on the cost of one chronically homeless person per year averages $8,000, Vernez said.

“That does not calculate the associated costs to the county, the court, and the hospital expenses,” Vernez said. “The number is much greater once we capture all those costs.

“Reaching out to the most in need — getting them connected to services early on — is going to save money over time.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bernard J. Kamins has been designated as judge of the Homeless Community Court, and he will devote half a day a month to working with the chronically homeless, Vernez said. Judge Linda K. Lefkowitz is the supervising judge of the court, Vernez said.

Once a month in the half-day session, the court will work with about 15 to 20 chronic homeless people who have been cited for “quality-of-life” violations, Vernez said. A good candidate for this new court would be a homeless person who has 30 such offenses, Bellman said.

“Often, the homeless are cited for quality of life violations,” Vernez said. “These are typically minor violations that evolve into more serious warrants. Their warrants increase. What we’re attempting to do is use the courts as the gateway [for the homeless] to connect to the services that they need.”

Los Angeles County has committed $500,000 in funding to this pilot program for one year.

Additionally, Santa Monica is contributing $1.2 million in housing, services and city programs serving the chronically homeless, Yaroslavsky said.

“It’s a good partnership” between the city and the county, Yaroslavsky said. “It has really been an exhibition of teamwork. We’re very excited about it.”

“Everybody really wants to make this work,” Bellman said. “We’re very hopeful. We’d like to expand it.”

Yaroslavsky said he hopes the program will start in September and that the Homeless Community Court will probably be at the courthouse.

Yaroslavsky, Bellman and Vernez all hope that the pilot court program will be successful.

If it is, Yaroslavsky said, “They [the chronically homeless] win. Society wins. The criminal justice system wins. The end result of all of this is a win-win for society.”

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