Most homeless people who live on the streets of Los Angeles have at one time or another been cited by police for various "quality of life" violations: public urination, sleeping on a sidewalk, jaywalking or other transgressions. These are relatively minor infractions of the law, but they can have major implications for people who often can't afford the initial fine of about $100, much less the penalty assessments that can triple the price. If a homeless person accumulates multiple citations, he or she can owe thousands. Worse yet, when violators don't show up at court to pay the fines or argue their cases, bench warrants are issued for their arrest. That means a criminal record, which can stand in the way of securing the two things that can get a homeless person off the street — a job and housing.
In an attempt to end that cycle, City Atty. Mike Feuer has announced a plan to hold at least six "citation clinics" each year for three years around L.A. County. The clinics, which will be funded by the county at a cost of about $800,000, will work with homeless people to wipe out these fines and erase their records of citations and even the bench warrants in some cases, according to the city attorney's office. In return for the help, they must first start participating in social service programs and complete some community service work.
This isn't the first attempt by the courts or the city attorney to help homeless people deal with their infractions. In this case, the legal process has been streamlined; the courts will sign off on the clinic attorneys' motions without the violators having to go to court. Transportation to clinics will be provided if necessary.
We especially like the idea of using debt relief as an incentive to get homeless people the job training, mental health counseling and drug treatment services that so many of them badly need. Some advocates for the homeless argue that those social service programs simply won't work unless people are provided with housing first. Certainly that would be ideal, but for the most part that's not going to happen under this program. What is most important about these clinics is that they help ease some homeless people's legal problems and get them connected to service providers.
Feuer suggests that this plan offers a great incentive to get "service resistant" people into services. That's fine. But not all homeless people are service resistant. Some have not gotten connected to the services they need. Others have waited on lists for housing with supportive services and never gotten in. Others begin their social service programs but then drop out. These clinics could be a "pathway" off the streets, as Feuer has said, but to succeed, organizers must find ways to keep people in the programs once they've signed up.