Boston's Homeless Court Provides Legal Assistance

Boston’s Homeless Court helps people experiencing homelessness address legal issues that might prevent them from obtaining housing and assistance.

The economic downturn that began in 2007 created a downward spiral for one Boston-area accountant. Within a short time, the man lost his job and his home, and he developed a substance use disorder. While living in his car, the man was cited by the police for not having registered the vehicle.

The man sought treatment and housing through Pine Street Inn, a large Boston-area social service provider, but his unresolved warrant was posing a barrier to housing. So, Pine Street Inn referred him to Boston’s Homeless Court.

“We were able to see him in court and get him on his way,” said Elizabeth Condron, the Homeless Court coordinator at Pine Street Inn.

The court was launched in 2010 through the joint efforts of the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court; Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley; the Committee for Public Council Services, which provides public defenders; and Pine Street Inn. It was designed to help people who are experiencing homelessness with outstanding for misdemeanors or non-violent felonies that make it difficult for them to rebuild their lives, Condron said.

In Massachusetts, people who have outstanding are barred from many forms of assistance, including housing vouchers, food stamps, and driver’s licenses, Condron said. Many employers and potential landlords are also wary of applicants with outstanding . Despite the dire consequences of not resolving their , many people experiencing homelessness simply are overwhelmed by the court process and never make it to court.

“For so many people experiencing homelessness, the criminal justice system is so daunting that they just won’t deal with it,” Condron explained.

But homeless court helps overcome these barriers. Judge Kathleen Coffey, First Justice of the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court, presides over the court, which is held at Pine Street Inn once a month. Judge Coffey developed the court based on a similar homeless court program in San Diego at the recommendation of retired Judge Maurice Richardson. Judge Richardson had previously worked with Coffey to create Massachusetts’ Mental Health Court.

“I really see this as an access to justice initiative,” Judge Coffey explained. “We are making the court more open and accessible for people who need help.”

Court Program Participants Undergo Screening

Pine Street Inn and other area shelters refer people to the court. Before the court schedules an appearance, a social worker verifies that each person has met the court’s requirements for completion of substance use or mental health treatment, job training, or other programs. “They already have to be on track to self-sufficiency,” Condron said.

Participants meet with a public defender to identify that are eligible for homeless court. The District Attorney’s office also reviews the cases. Cases may not be eligible for homeless court if the District Attorney objects to dismissing the case. Once a participant’s case is approved, the process is designed to be as streamlined as possible. Caseworkers and attorneys often do much of the work in advance, Condron said. So far, about 550 people have gone through the screening process necessary to participate in homeless court, and 165 have had their cases resolved, she said. Judge Coffey said the support and enthusiasm of District Attorney Dan Conley, the public defenders, and Pine Street Inn have been essential to the program’s success.

Success Expands Across Massachusetts

The court has been so successful, in fact, that it was recently expanded. Originally, the court served only Suffolk County, but now people throughout the state may participate, Condron said. Judge Coffey said this is an important development because many participants have from multiple jurisdictions, but have little means to travel to have them resolved one by one. Now, homeless court can handle them all simultaneously. For the state, it is a more efficient use of judicial resources and helps eliminate a backlog of that the state is not interested in pursuing, Judge Coffey said.

But, most importantly, removing these legal obstacles and associated fines provides great relief for participants and gives them a second chance, Judge Coffey said. She explained that participants are often very emotional and express gratitude to the court and their lawyers.

“It’s very humbling, the whole experience,” Judge Coffey said. “You are working with people who have a lot of challenges, but they still persevere. It makes you appreciate the resilience of the human spirit.”

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Bridget M. Kuehn
Last Updated: 04/19/2016