Legal clinic in Venice offers homeless people the chance to expunge infractions in exchange for connecting with services

By Gary Walker

If Selemthius Tate eventually turns his life around, he can thank a discarded flyer that he read while walking along the Venice boardwalk in October.

Tate, who is homeless, was cited on the beach this spring for drinking wine from an open container. For those who are truly destitute, tickets for nuisance infractions often go unpaid and can lead to warrants that restrict employment opportunities and become barriers to receiving supportive services.

The flyer Tate found announced an event at Oakwood Recreation Center that promised homeless people the opportunity to expunge minor infractions on their records in exchange for being connected to supportive services.

Tate was initially skeptical, but the name on the flyer convinced him to give it a try.

“It says right here: ‘City Attorney Mike Feuer,’” Tate, a native of Michigan, said while holding up the flyer. “It looked like a professional and serious event, not like some that I’ve been to in the past.”

He wasn’t alone in his hopefulness. Tate was one of hundreds of homeless people who attended the homeless citation clinic on Oct. 27, one of several such events the city attorney’s office is hosting throughout Los Angeles.

“We have to find a constructive way to get homeless people back on their feet. We have 20,000 to 30,000 homeless people on our streets every day, and the problem is only getting worse,” Feuer said in an interview during the clinic.

“These are people whose lives can be turned around, and we have an opportunity with these citation clinics to incentivize them to come in and take advantage of getting services as a gateway to eliminating citations and fines that have impeded them from getting jobs, housing and services for years,” Feuer said. “We think that we have a terrific model here that works.”

Tate said that, in addition to getting his ticket expunged, he hoped to explore housing opportunities.

“What’s most important to me is the schedule of completion. That way I’m not confused about my life, I know which way to go and I put myself in the position that I need to be in to help myself,” Tate said.

During the clinic, dozens of attorneys from Feuer’s office sat at long tables and asked participants about the nature of their citations and started making calls on their behalf. Representatives from various social services agencies helped attendees fill out paperwork and directed them to various tables.

Tina Smith, 26, also came to the clinic to have infractions expunged. She traveled to Venice from Van Nuys and said she was surprised at how organized the forum was.

“I’m homeless right now, so I’m also looking at any housing and job opportunities they’re offering,” she said.

After the clinic, Smith said a city attorney’s office representative assigned her community service hours to complete in exchange for expunging her citations.

“Having [the tickets] go away is going to open up a lot of job possibilities for me. It’s a real blessing and I’m glad I came,” Smith said.

Since taking office in 2013, Feuer has pledged to take a different approach to homelessness than some of his predecessors, a new tact reflected in the way he discussed clinic participants.

“A client comes in, describes the scope of their citations, and we have an arrangement with the court system where we can help them — but only if they take advantage of the services that are here,” Feuer said. “For us, it’s one location; it’s easy. And it’s straightforward from the standpoint of the homeless client. … We don’t want there to be a time lapse between our conversations and connecting them with services.”