Before the lawyers assembled in the modest conference room at the Tommy Clinkenbeard Legal Clinic, nearly two dozen women and men were already lined up against the lobby walls waiting for a fleeting chance at relief.
Inside, they hoped to be freed from a revolving door of debt impossible for some to escape. The legal clinic run by the nonprofit Loaves and Fishes is the entry point to Sacramento County’s “homeless court,” and allows people to work off debt from tickets and fines by doing community service.
Almost everyone involved says it’s nearly impossible for a person to improve his or her life under the yoke of debt and legal threats. Left unpaid, the fines grow exponentially once court fees are added, amounting to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — money that most cannot pay.
But nearly two decades after the program began, results remain elusive for the homeless court and the city of Sacramento itself. As the ranks of the homeless rise throughout the region, and tent encampments spring up around the city, some advocates question whether swapping debt for community service alone is effective.
Does solving one problem — in this case, getting rid of court-imposed debt — have any effect on moving someone from the streets to a home?
Some doubt the approach is working.
Steve Binder, a former public defender who in 1989 created the nation’s first homeless court program in San Diego County, said the courts should strive to do more than “make a city whole” with community service for minor violations.
When homeless people commit minor infractions in San Diego, for example, the courts require participants to have documented plans to gain employment or housing through one of many social service organizations. Binder said they stopped requiring community service.
“Sweeping sidewalks doesn’t really advance the individual,” Binder said. “It may feel like it’s giving back to the community but if those individuals had paid jobs doing that hard work, then you might get somebody who can afford to pay rent.”
The homeless court is one of nearly a dozen “collaborative courts” in Sacramento County. But unlike diversion programs for drug users or troubled veterans, it is not designed to boost people out of their dire situation. It simply erases the burden of debt for a “public nuisance” infraction.
Supporters argue, however, that allowing defendants to work off the debt steers them toward a steadier path where they might be eligible for housing assistance and other government programs.
“It works to the extent that it’s able to be here,” said Commissioner Phil Stanger, who oversees homeless court cases. “Otherwise, in the old days, you used to have these folks that had a humongous amount of warrants out there and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Even it’s strongest supporters concede the court is only a Band-Aid solution.
“This is just (one thing) that would need to be a part of a more comprehensive approach to address homelessness because you can’t get un-homeless without addressing this first,” said Rob Sorokolit, a public defender working in the court.
Meanwhile, the number of citations and arrests has grown considerably as the city’s homeless crisis deepened in the last seven years, a Bee analysis of police data shows.
The Sacramento Police Department arrested more than 4,700 homeless people in 2018, a 59 percent increase from 2012, data shows. The 1,160 citations issued in 2018 is more than triple the amount issued seven years ago, sending more potential clients to the clinic.
“This is not helping people get off the street,” Sorokolit said. “This is just helping people clear their tickets.”
Twice-a-month debt relief
Relief comes only two days of the month. One of them is clinic day — the one time when public defenders come to Loaves and Fishes to meet with clients.
On a recent visit by The Bee, many people came with crumpled tickets or extended stories of how they ran afoul of law enforcement: A citation for carrying a cart on the American River Parkway; a few infractions while sleeping in a car; or several tickets from dozens of unpaid trips on the light rail to get across town.
At its core, the program is designed to help people like Francis Gregory who has been cited for riding the light rail without a fare 29 times and owes the court nearly $14,000 to clear them all, records show. After Gregory missed the court hearings, the $157 tickets ballooned to more than $450 each.
“I have no income,” she said in an interview with The Bee, “so bus fare for me to get to and from is null and void.”
Seated across from an attorney, Gregory, 49, tried to piece together the complexity of her circumstances. Something about not being able to see her son in jail because of an outstanding warrant for her arrest. She believed it stemmed from the light rail tickets.
“There’s no warrant,” said Sorokolit, the public defender, after placing a call to check. “You haven’t had a warrant since 2018.”
Gregory looked unconvinced. Sorokolit continued explaining the limits of the program; how this court was not a place where she could fight the charge or make demands. The lawyers have only one tool and that is to settle the cases by allowing the clients to do community service.
“If for some reason you can’t come to court, call and let us know and I can always file a continuance,” Sorokolit said, meaning he could delay the hearing for another month. “But you have to come to court. If you don’t come to court we will not be able to resolve the cases.”
Gregory was not interested in making demands.
She was one of the last people to make it into the clinic at Loaves and Fishes that day. She carried a small cart. Her body caved into a plastic chair with a hand covering her face, looking and feeling defeated. It was as if the weight of the last five years rested on her shoulders — a burden she hoped to have lifted.
She’d been living in a tent on North B Street, an area where many homeless gathers because it’s close to the services at Loaves and Fishes. City blocks there are dotted with age-old factory buildings and vacant lots. Police had just told several people that morning they would have to leave.
Sorokolit asked: “Where have you stayed before?”
The question stirred some anxiety in Gregory who previously lived on the river. Homeless since 2014, she rolled in and out of shelters before then.
“Everywhere I go I have to stay by myself,” she said. “I can’t trust anybody.”
“Just move then, just move,” Sorokolit advised.
“A block over.”
“And really be by myself?”
Homeless camping ban
The strict measures taken to enforce laws against the homeless highlight the difficulty of the challenge and how far the region has to go before it will get better. Over the last year, cities on the West Coast have been wrestling with a federal appellate court decision that blocks governments from citing the homeless for camping outside.
A three-judge panel said such actions would be “cruel and unusual punishment” if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds. Many of them, including Sacramento, which declared a shelter crisis last year, do not. The decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
More park rangers were hired to patrol the riverfront and break up homeless camps. Regional Transit deployed more officers a few years ago to cut down on fare evasion. And the Bee’s analysis shows the police department arrested and cited more homeless people in 2018 than they have in any of the last seven years.
To determine the magnitude of homeless enforcement, The Bee requested data on every arrest and citation issued by the agency between 2012 and 2018. The data was limited to arrests where people gave no address or were listed as transient.
When asked about the trend, police spokesman Karl Chan said the data could be skewed since some suspects who are arrested give an address as “general delivery,” meaning they have no permanent mailing address, or transient even though they are not experiencing homelessness.
Sacramento’s homeless population has also grown, he added, in the last seven years. Organizers counted some 5,570 homeless people in Sacramento County earlier this year, a 19 percent increase over the previous count.
“This, in turn, has resulted in more calls for service regarding homelessness,” Chan said in an email. “This would result in more contacts with homeless individuals, and in turn, could result in more enforcement action being taken.”
The police department does not have any other way to track arrests other than calls for service involving homeless people, Chan said.
The 2016 agreement to patrol Regional Transit stations is one possible explanation. RT struggled for years with fare dodgers who eluded paying for light rail rides. It was easy since platforms do not have turnstiles or attendants at every stop. The transit agency saw immediate results as the number of fare evaders and crime incidents plummeted.
Jessica Gonzalez, an RT spokeswoman, said the agency tries to balance public safety with the needs of the homeless by offering free passes to local nonprofits. What’s more, she said non-paying passengers can always avoid fines if they get off at the next stop.
“The only way they would be cited is if they refused to pay or get off the train,” Gonzalez said. “We’re never just looking to see a homeless person and cite them.”
Gregory’s situation makes plain the trade-off for those results. She received nine citations in 2016 alone and the majority came in the years after the policy change. Officers found her at various light rail stations and sometimes included photos with the tickets.
The priciest violation, now up to $533, is for smoking near a light rail platform. No matter how frequent the officers visited, she always signed for the tickets.
Gregory, who was usually seated when the photos were taken, often looked surprised or resigned. She sometimes carried a bulging backpack and kept her hair covered. RT officials said they take photographs to hold as evidence or if a passenger does not have an ID.
Redemption or revolving door?
The steady citations. The constant encampment sweeps. It all echoes back to a time not long ago when down-and-out people found it hard to live outdoors. Without the help of a public defender, Sacramento’s court system once did even less to protect them.
Studies have shown that quality of life laws do little to combat homelessness. In fact, one researcher in Hawaii found they worsen people’s financial woes, limit access to jobs and violate property rights of the unhoused.
A bombastic lawyer, the story goes, walked into Loaves and Fishes one day to give a talk on civil rights and inform the city’s homeless. He was besieged afterward by people bearing scores of tickets for camping and other low-level infractions.
It was the early 2000s and the lawyer was Tommy Clinkenbeard, a Sacramento County public defender. Seeing a need, he led the creation of a legal clinic and then a collaborative court with regular sessions at the downtown courthouse.
Even after Clinkenbeard died in 2006, the demand for legal services never waned. But losing its champion didn’t make running the clinic — and therefore the homeless court — any easier, said Angie Mendoza, who co-founded the clinic with Clinkenbeard and retired shortly after he died.
Funding was always a challenge; the program doesn’t receive any public support other than the time of prosecutors, public defenders and the judge. Mendoza said they aspired to do more for the homeless. The gravity of the problem, she came to understand, was far greater than the resources they could offer.
“There’s just not enough social services for the number of people,” Mendoza said. “It’s not like you’re going to get your issues remedied overnight.”
The clinic sees on average 25 people every day for a range of legal issues, according to Loaves officials. The court settled 192 cases last year and 93 percent of them completed community service hours working at Loaves and Fishes.
There are no statistics, however, on how many people are housed after their community service ends.
“This system is better than no system,” said Ron Blubaugh, a volunteer lawyer at the clinic since 2007. “It’s just not as good as it could be.”
Homeless courts are not new to California. Programs can be found in smaller locales like Sonoma and Fresno counties as well as super-sized metros in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Program managers say stability — and not just community service — should be the true measure of a court’s success.
Sonoma County tried to create a court three times starting in 2009; each time with a different judge and often disappointing results, said Georgia Berland, who now runs the program.
The community wanted it. Any homeless person could sign up. Legal staff spent time on preparation, she said. But when the hearings were held nearly two-thirds of the clients were no-shows.
When it was restarted in 2013, Berland only accepted referrals from social service agencies and people with documented goals to get housing or find a job. That decision has made the biggest difference, Berland said.
“Having that support of the agency that serves you best is really key and it has helped us enormously.”
Court day resolution
At the hearings, there’s little testament to the court’s success. Past clients do not relay stories of gaining stability.
Still, a small order of redemption can be found in the out-of-the-way courtroom known as Department 2. It’s where Commissioner Phil Stanger presides every four weeks for hearings routinely scheduled at 1:30 p.m.
A simple bargain takes place: community service hours are traded for fines. Some charges, but rarely all, are dismissed. The real victory — if you ask anyone — is just getting defendants to follow through and show up.
A longtime jurist, Stanger can still remember when police would round people up in paddy wagon and judges held hours-long sessions for a range of minor crimes and misdemeanors.
Stanger said he’d walk on the bench at 8:30 a.m. and wouldn’t stop talking until 12:30 p.m. Realizing some defendants should be treated instead of jailed, the legal system adapted and created specialty courts.
He’s optimistic about the big steps taken in the legal system since he first took the bench in the 1970s — even when its shortcomings are so glaring.
Over 40 minutes on a recent Thursday, the lawyers cycled through about a dozen cases with little fanfare.
But Francis Gregory never showed up for court that day. And the public defender never motioned for her 29 light rail tickets to be resolved later. Gregory’s case was — in the stern language of the courtroom — “dropped from the calendar” until further notice.
Unresolved, the matter reverted back to its prior status. But later that day, shortly before 6 p.m., an RT officer happened to stop Gregory again. Records show she was issued another citation.
The offense was riding the light rail without paying a fare. She told the officer her purse was stolen and refused to sign for the ticket.