Why Defending the Homeless in Court is Not Enough?

Public Defender Helps Homeless Find Path Back Home

A September 8, 2016 article in The Atlantic, “Why Defending the Homeless in Court is Not Enough?” highlights the work being done in Santa Ana, California to help individuals experiencing homelessness who enter the court system make “a path back home.”

A public defender talks about the alternative approach that’s making a path back home for many in California.

Downtown Santa Ana is home to a homelessness encampment that is “home” to an estimated 900 homeless individuals. Santa Ana is part of Orange County, one of the United State’s richest counties.

The Atlantic interviewed Larisa Dinsmoor who is a deputy public defender who specializing in homeless cases on top of her regular case load. Says Dinsmoor,

“I think society feels like people who are homeless just don’t want to do anything, that they’re actually taking steps to become homeless. The majority of people become homeless [because] something tragic happens in their lives.”

Dinsmoor’s clients come to her after being convicted for a petty offense such as shoplifting, panhandling, unlawful camping, and urinating in public. These are the offenses that are common for homeless individuals living on the street and her clients are referred from friends, outreach workers and judges.

Dinsmoor works with the Orange County Community Court (OCC.) The Court can help her homeless clients rebuild their lives and connect them with benefits, employment, housing, and even help them regain custody of their children.

Here is how the Court works to do this. Once a client competes an individualized program, his or her client’s outstanding fines and fees issued by county police are dismissed. Over the past two decades, this court model has been replicated in hundreds of communities across the country.

The Court program’s results are impressive.

“In 2015, 430 participants entered the OCCC homeless outreach court, with 254 completing the program by gaining employment, finding stable housing, and serving the required community service hours. Since its founding in 2003, over 2,700 individuals have had similar results.”

Says Dismoor about her important part of the OCC program,

“My role is to not only represent my homeless clients but also to build a relationship with them and find out what’s really going on in their lives that is causing them to be homeless.”

She follows a holistic approach including first, determining the individual’s cause of homelessness.

When asked what would make her job easier, Dismoor responded “Housing is number one.”

Why Defending the Homeless in Court is Not Enough

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