A legal clinic run by the nonprofit Loaves and Fishes is the entry point to Sacramento County’s “homeless court,” allowing people to work off debt from tickets and fines by doing community service. Left unpaid, the fines grow exponentially once court fees are added, amounting to hundreds or thousands of dollars that most cannot pay. Nearly two decades after the program began, results remain elusive, reports the Sacramento Bee. As the ranks of the homeless rise throughout the region, and tent encampments spring up, some advocates question whether swapping debt for community service is effective.
Does solving one problem — getting rid of court-imposed debt — have any effect on moving someone from the streets to a home? Steve Binder, a former public defender who in 1989 created the nation’s first homeless court in San Diego County, said courts should do more than “make a city whole” with community service for minor violations. When homeless people commit infractions in San Diego, courts require them to have a plan for employment or housing through a social service organization. Courts stopped requiring community service. “Sweeping sidewalks doesn’t really advance the individual,” Binder said. The homeless court is one of nearly a dozen “collaborative courts” in Sacramento. Unlike diversion programs for drug users or veterans, it is not designed to boost people out of their dire situation. It simply erases the debt for a “public nuisance” infraction. Supporters argue that working off debt steers defendants toward possible eligibility for housing aid and other government programs. Arrests are rising as the homeless crisis deepens. Sacramento police arrested 4,700 homeless people in 2018, 59 percent above 2012. Despite protests about a “war on the poor,” Las Vegas enacted a law Wednesday making it illegal for the homeless to sleep on streets when beds are available at established shelters, the Associated Press reports.