On any given day or night, as many as 70,000 of our nation’s military veterans seek refuge in the underpasses, culverts or homeless shelters of America’s cities and towns. This epidemic of homelessness among the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country is a national disgrace. Yet, many of us look the other way.
As we honor our veterans on Nov. 11, the American Bar Association asks the legal profession to take the lead in helping homeless veterans find their way forward.
In more than 50 jurisdictions across the country, homeless courts keep unresolved legal issues from pushing homeless veterans farther outside of society. Through an innovative approach involving progressive plea bargaining and alternative sentencing structures, homeless defendants can settle outstanding misdemeanor cases and gain access to the help they need. At the same time, these programs cut costs for the court system by reducing clerical caseloads, recidivism and incarceration costs.
Homeless courts address the problems of people from a variety of backgrounds, but veterans make up a sizeable portion of those in these programs. In San Diego, for example, veterans account for 20 percent of the population served by that city’s homeless court program.
The way the process works is simple. Homeless courts convene once a month at a local shelter or other service provider. Homeless defendants who face misdemeanor charges accrued from living on the streets—from disorderly conduct or petty theft to jaywalking or public urination—voluntarily sign up in advance through a homeless shelter or other assistance program.
After agreeing to plead guilty, they are assigned by a judge to employment training, substance abuse treatment or other activities that will help them gain self-sufficiency. Most importantly, they are not incarcerated and are given credit for the time they have already spent working to address the issues keeping them on the streets.
Most of the time, defendants will have completed the required assignment before even appearing before a judge. During the hearing, they present proof of participation in the required programs. If they are deemed to be on course to avoid breaking the law again, the related charges are dismissed.
Homeless courts typically clear 100 to 200 cases each hearing, helping to alleviate an overburdened system. The referring service provider, such as a shelter, government housing agency or free medical clinic, monitors these defendants to ensure they stay on track—yet another cost-saving for the courts.
For homeless veterans, accumulated civil and criminal charges are among their most formidable barriers to finding a job, getting into a treatment program or securing housing.
“If there’s no place to go, no lawful way to live, you end up breaking the law,” said Steve Binder, special adviser to the ABA’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and founder of the original homeless court program, established in San Diego 25 years ago.
Through these programs, the justice system helps homeless veterans by offering them services rather than further burdening them with fines, prison time or criminal records.
Homeless service providers carefully screen defendants before recommending them for the program and continue to work with them to foster self-sufficiency. In San Diego, the typical participant has been involved with the referring homeless service provider for at least 30 days before appearing in court.
Since the San Diego homeless court was established, it has grown to serve about 300 veterans annually. The ABA’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty is working to replicate homeless court programs in every community in America.
The program has inspired other court programs and legal services tailored specifically to help veterans combat homelessness. Veterans treatment courts, which offer structured intervention, treatment and integrated services for veterans who struggle with the effects of trauma from their military service, are designed to, among other things, keep veterans from becoming homeless. The ABA’s commission showcases veterans treatment courts and works to expand them in jurisdictions throughout the country.
In a similar vein, the ABA’s Child Support Initiative for Homeless Veterans aims to help veterans address unresolved child support issues that may keep them from finding a job or a place to live.
In spite of these efforts, much more needs to be done. To expand homeless courts, support from local judges is essential. Lawyers need to let judges know that these programs work and that, by diverting cases from the traditional court system, they can ease the strain on judicial resources.
The ABA’s Homeless Court Initiative and Homeless Veterans Justice Initiative provide resources and technical assistance to local jurisdictions, while the ABA has adopted basic principles for homeless courts and veterans treatment courts to follow. You can refer court officials to the website ambar.org/homelesscourts for more information.
At the same time, you can volunteer to provide pro bono services through ABA programs such as the Child Support Initiative for Homeless Veterans.
We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude. We can begin to repay that debt through our work with homeless veterans who are still struggling to find their way.
James R. Silkenat is president of the American Bar Association.