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June 18, 2014

Setting up the Detroit homeless court- a truly collaborative effort

The effort involved in getting the Street Outreach court in Detroit off the ground was immense, but there are now more than 20 courts in USA for homeless people, so the effort has been multiplied.  The first street court in USA was set up in San Diego, inspired by a passionate defence lawyer Steve Binder, who felt that homeless people had a particularly poor experience of the  courts.  They were faced with the kafkaesque situation – they often amassed a series of fines, which they could not pay.  Given their criminal records, they could not get stable housing or jobs. Parking fines were a particular problem.  So because they could not pay their parking fines, they could not get the means to pay their parking fines.  The Street Outreach court idea in Detroit actually came from community organising.  Molly Sweeney was working with Detroit Action Commonwealth, a homeless organisation run by the homeless.  They had identified the court system as THE key barrier to reducing homelessness.  Molly and her colleagues investigated San Diego, wrote their wish list for a Detroit street court, and starting searching for a friendly judge.  Luckily, a pastor who was involved with the project had a parishioner – Cylenthia LaToye Miller – who was a judge.  At the request of this pastor, Cylenthia went to a meeting about the project and was totally enthused.  But then began a long struggle to get the court up and running.  Judge Miller was aided in this by the support of one of the other judges in the Detroit state court, Judge Kay Hansen. One of the key barriers for all concerned was the proposed location of  the court.  Detroit Action Commonwealth and Street Democracy (the other homeless organisation involved) said homeless people were afraid of and distrusted the court itself and wanted the court to be sited in an environment in which homeless people felt comfortable.  The court authorities said that the security of the judges and court staff would be at risk if the court was held in a non court building.  In the end, amazingly, the powers that be did agree to let the Street Outreach Court be held in the Capuchin Soup kitchen, quite a way from the court.  And the judges agreed that they would do this street outreach work in addition to their normal work.  Just about two years ago the court started.  In the first year recidivism was 0%.  Security problems were non existent.  95% of participants got into stable housing.  A homeless court like this would be unnecessary in England and Wales.  The accumulation of fines is not the key barrier to homeless people getting on their feet.  But this example of how a new court got off the ground speaks volumes about the ability of US judges to take an idea and run with it, to (with a lot of effort) improve the service they offer and get better outcomes.

A few clips and links about the court are here.