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Court Courts Homeless Vets--Under a Canopy, Graffiti

Times Staff Writer

San Diego Municipal Court will convene today in special outdoor session on a racquetball court, where the judge, bailiff, clerks and lawyers will wrangle over the criminal cases of homeless veterans.

Believed to be perhaps the first time in the nation a county court has set up shop solely to deal with the criminal problems of one segment of society, the court will meet for one day only on a racquetball court at San Diego High School.

“We’re not talking about an El Cajon ax murder here,” said organizer Robert Van Keuren, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of San Diego. “We’re talking about sleeping in public, jaywalking, public trespass, the types of tickets people get when they’re homeless because they have no place to go.

Dealing With Barriers

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“Then you rack up the failure to appears,” Van Keuren said. “You’re not going to appear in court when you’ve got no money to pay. . . . These guys have a fear of the court system, a fear of appearing in court. If they want to get a job, this is one more barrier that stands in the way of them getting back into the mainstream. So we’re actually going to have a court to try to deal with this barrier, among others.”

Judge E. Mac Amos Jr., Municipal Court presiding judge, agreed to dispense justice.

“I’ve heard of situations where you might set special sessions for groups of cases,” Amos said. “If you had a large group of protester cases, for instance, you might set a special session. But I’ve not heard of a situation like this being set up, for veterans, especially under these circumstances, so I think it is unique.”

About 45 deputy prosecutors and public defenders have volunteered to join Amos and court personnel in handling the cases, said Jay Wentz, a lawyer and head of the county Bar Assn. committee on the homeless. Defense attorneys met Friday with more than 80 veterans who are ready to face their back charges, said Steve Binder, a deputy public defender.

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One was Bob Brower, 28, who said he’s been homeless for “a long time.”

“I got a bunch of illegal-lodging citations, traffic tickets, jaywalking,” Brower said. “I hope this works because this lady’s helping me get my driver’s license, get back on my feet. But I can’t do it until I take care of these things.”

James Brown, 48, who said he had spent the last two years homeless in San Diego, wanted to take care of “a couple” back tickets for drinking in public and “five or six” citations for riding the San Diego Trolley without paying.

“I think a court here is a fine idea to take care of these things, a good idea, having them come out here to us this way,” he said.

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Amos will officiate from behind a folding table and under a blue-and-yellow canopy draped over the top walls of the racquetball court. Defendants standing at a lectern in front of the table will be able to read a handwritten sign hung Friday on the court’s back wall announcing Amos’ name. Or they can turn to a side wall to see the graffito, “Maria ‘n’ Frank 6/24/89.”

Although Amos will only hear misdemeanors, sentencing for those found guilty will call for alternative thinking, the judge said.

The county’s jails are “severely overcrowded,” Amos said, adding that “many of these people don’t have any money, so the imposition of fines doesn’t make much sense.”

Instead, the guilty ones may see “public work service"--digging up weeds and picking up trash along the roads or volunteering with a church or service group, Amos said.

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“Public work service--hey, I’d do that, yeah,” said Tom Wilson, 38, who said he had been homeless since last summer. Wilson said he had “about five” tickets for jaywalking, illegal lodging and no-pay rides on the trolley.

“I’m going to try to get them all thrown out, though,” Wilson said. “I sure ain’t got the money to pay them.”

‘Stand Down’ Encampment

The court is the centerpiece of a three-day “Stand Down” encampment, a tent city designed to provide legal, housing and health counseling for homeless veterans.

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“It’s one-stop shopping for homeless vets, that’s the idea,” said Van Keuren. The event will end Sunday.

In military parlance, a “stand down” is the rest period after combat. The “Stand Down” project was designed to give homeless vets three days’ respite from the streets and access to social services so that they can “learn to help themselves,” Van Keuren said.

Although there are about 5,000 homeless people in San Diego County, according to Frank Landerville, project director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the camp and court are only open to homeless veterans, which number about 1,000.

Last year’s camp drew 500 vets. This year’s was expected to draw 600, Van Keuren said.

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In addition to the court session, about 55 lawyers were available Friday--and were scheduled to volunteer throughout the three-day program--for counseling on divorce and child custody matters, evictions, consumer issues and government benefits, said Dan Stanford, a San Diego attorney coordinating the civil side of the program.

Problems that couldn’t be solved on the spot were to be referred, among other sources, to “Project HELP,” a homeless assistance program being staffed by 150 law clerks serving summer internships at area firms, Stanford said.


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