After blogging about the Plymouth Mental Health Court last month, we heard about another specialized court tailored to the needs of people whose legal problems are related to a lack of permanent housing. The only one of its kind in Massachusetts, the Homeless Court is run by Judge Kathleen E. Coffey, and is convened once a month – rotating between the Pine Street Inn and the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Shelter. Now 2.5 years old, this court has no dedicated funding.
Judge Coffey’s goal is to “reach as many people as possible, and to assist the homeless in removing barriers and impediments that obstruct their ability to obtain housing, jobs, and other social benefits.” Chief among the obstacles that can derail the lives of people trying to start over are outstanding court fees and warrants.
She knows that people without a permanent mailing address are more likely to miss court dates than people with stable housing. She can also connect the dots in ways that aren’t necessarily apparent to those of us fortunate not to have experienced homelessness. For example, a homeless person “squatting” in property thought-to-be-abandoned can lead to charges of breaking and entering, plus trespassing. If she sees a shoplifting charge, she definitely wants to go one step further to determine whether or not the homeless defendant has a history of drug use.
We get the importance of putting a human face on an issue. So we’re going to tell you about Annie (not her real name), a 21-year-old woman who came before Judge Coffey on the day we dropped in on the session at Pine Street Inn.
Annie lived in foster care from age 8 until she aged out of the system at age 18. Her CPCS attorney, Jeff Garland, explains that his client was homeless – “couch surfing” and “squatting” – all of which came to an end after she was arrested on the aforementioned breaking and entering plus trespassing charges. Too poor to make bail, she spent 30 days in jail, ultimately sentenced to 1 year of administrative probation by a judge in the Dorchester Division of the BMC.
At this point, Annie has successfully completed her probation, and stayed out of any further trouble. She recently got into a residential program at Long Island Shelter, and is working on getting her G.E.D. After receiving mental health and drug assessments, she is about to start a program that will provide her with a job at the shelter.
Life is looking up for Annie, except for two problems. She owes $650 in court fees that she can’t afford to pay. Plus she’s got a probation warrant at Waltham District Court relating to a shoplifting incident that happened while she was homeless.
Satisfied that Annie is making a genuine effort to put her life on a positive track, Judge Coffey says she will waive the court fees, in effect liberating her from criminal justice system involvement. Assistant District Attorney Christina Miller agrees the disposition is appropriate, as does a probation officer.
As for the other impediment, Judge Coffey has her clerk get Annie on the docket for Waltham District Court next week. The judge feels confident that if the judge in Waltham sees the paper work from the session at Pine Street Inn, he too will remove the warrant.
Specialty courts in which human services providers and the courts can work cooperatively for the benefit of extremely vulnerable people have great promise. The Homeless Court provides options and redemption for people who face more challenges in one day than many of us face in a lifetime.
One final note. . . Keen on giving credit where credit is due, Judge Coffey has urged us to mention that the help she’s gotten from people like District Attorney Dan Conley, Elizabeth Condron, Volunteer and Corporate Relations Coordinator at Pine Street Inn, the Boston Police Department, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services – saying the Homeless Court would not survive without their help.