Santa Monica’s Homeless Community Court pilot program completed its first six months of service in July, with 52 people having been referred to the court.
The court serves the chronically homeless of Santa Monica — said to be home to approximately 2,000 homeless people on any given day — by providing “therapeutic justice.”
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, according to officials.
This becomes a vicious cycle and is often referred to as the “revolving door” effect.
The homeless court’s goal is to end that vicious circle by resolving 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.
Its goal is also to help them “get stability in their lives and be independent — instead of putting them in jail, which is not the prescription they need,” said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Third Supervisorial District includes Santa Monica. “A regular criminal court can’t address the unique needs of a homeless person the way a homeless court can.”
The pilot program is the result of a cooperative effort of the City of Santa Monica and the county, spearheaded by Yaroslavsky.
Court sessions are held in Santa Monica City Council Chambers at 2 p.m. one Friday a month. The judge is Bobby Tillmon.
The homeless served by the court “have their jail time waived and their warrants canceled in exchange for them going into some kind of rehab service program,” Yaroslavsky said.
So far, 41 of the 52 chronically homeless referred to the court have stuck with the program and made all their court dates.
Seven never showed up for their very first court date, said Setareh Yavari, senior administrative analyst in the city’s Homeless Services Unit.
And four who appeared for their first or first two court dates then failed to show up for their third or fourth court date, Yavari said.
“If someone doesn’t show up, a bench warrant is issued [for] that person,” said Julie Rusk, human services manager for the city. “There’s a consequence for that as well. It’s an obligation [to be at court].”
“These individuals really want to try to resolve their cases, so there definitely is a willingness to participate,” says Yavari. “Even as hard as it may be, they’re willing to try to do it.”
Most return to court an average of two to four times, “depending on their circumstances,” said Rusk. “The judge likes to check back in with them to make sure everything is going well, to keep their progress on track.”
So far, 15 participants have been referred to some form of drug or alcohol treatment facility, Rusk said.
“Many of the participants have been referred into a range of temporary housing programs,” she added. “I think, all in all, that it’s been a successful start. It’s a pilot project, so part of the goal of any pilot project is to learn as you’re implementing and I think we’ve learned a lot in the first few months.”
Fourteen individuals have “graduated” from their individual programs, Yavari said.
“Really, the end goal with this program is to help people successfully transition off the streets and into housing,” Yavari said.
Both Yavari and Rusk believe that the pilot program has had a positive impact on the people it’s serving.
“I think, absolutely, there’s no doubt it’s had a very constructive impact on these people,” Rusk said.