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Tearing Up Tickets No Pipe Dream for LA’s Homeless

DEEGAN ON LA--Tearing up your tickets may be a pipe dream for some, but it became reality for over 200 people with homelessness and other issues a few days ago when the City Attorney hosted another in a series of Homeless Citation Clinics, administered through their innovative program called HEART (Homeless Engagement and Response Team). 

 

What were people saying about it? “It’s very powerful,” “remarkable,” “this has changed my life,” “I felt relieved,” “it was a blessing,” “you should see the look on some of the client’s faces,” “this is an important step,” “thank you!” 

There have been several clinics recently and this time it was held at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. It drew about 200 people struggling with homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, co-occurring disorders or Veteran related issues. 

The purpose of the clinic was to resolve their pending judicial proceedings by connecting them to appropriate services to address some of the many challenges they face on their road to recovery and self-sufficiency. In exchange for participation in social services and community obligation hours worked, the participant can resolve certain traffic and quality of life citations, some low level misdemeanor charges and related warrants, and fines, all of which can detrimentally hinder one’s ability to access employment, social services and permanent housing opportunities. 

Not a bad way to go for breaking down barriers and moving forward. More starkly stated, vulnerable members of society that rarely have anyone looking out for them, but who often have people looking down on them without even seeing them, are now the focus of attention. 

It’s an innovative “nuts and bolts” program that produces immediate results as opposed to the promises of politicos projecting how they will help people with homelessness through budget increases -- pie in the sky pronouncements we have heard for so long from Spring Street. 

This program is something our city is doing right for the homeless. “It’s a way to resolve failure to appear tickets for the homeless, who are often afraid to enter a courtroom for fear that they may get “hooked-up” and not be able to leave,” said Patrick Shibuya, Deputy City Attorney and member of the HEART team. 

His boss, City Attorney Mike Feuer, puts it this way: “Clinic participants can have citations and related fines removed from their records in exchange for community service and for taking advantage of housing and other services. This is an important step to help homeless people turn their lives around. Many homeless people who are cited for low-level offenses get caught in a cycle that prevents them from starting a new life. We are helping them break that cycle.” 

Even more convincing are the words of clients that have been served by the Homeless Citation Clinic, such as De'Marea Harris, a new hire at SRO (the SRO Housing Corporation on “Skid Row”) who, as a result of participating in the program, had multiple traffic tickets, and failure to appear and failure to pay charges against him dropped, along with two outstanding warrants. He had accumulated a burden of 1,000 hours of community service as a way out of his troubles, but was unable to climb that mountain until he attended a Homeless Citation Clinic, where his hours were reduced to 38, and he was assigned to the service provider of his choice, SRO. 

Once there, he worked off his hours doing custodial work, vacuuming offices, washing floors, picking up trash, and similar duties. He was so motivated that he completed his hours in one week, working practically full-time, and then he stuck around SRO as a volunteer and eventually became a new hire as of last November. His AA degree in business administration helped him get a job at SRO as a program assistant. 

De'Marea Harris, progeny of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), calls his transformation “remarkable,” adding that “this has changed my life, it’s been a big eye opener that expanded my thought process. I now view things differently, dealing with mental health and homeless, and hope to get a chance to interact with a lot more pope and be a mentor to them.” His advice to anyone struggling is that ‘’positive effort brings greater success.” 

Another client, Peter Jankowski, went to the Homeless Clinic Court on January 20, 2016. He said he “had big doubts in having any way of getting back my license, but I was guided through the steps and process on how to get this situated. I was assisted by an attorney who looked up my case and made some calls. It was then that I felt relieved. She told me that I was eligible and I only to do 20 hours of community service which surely beats what the judge requested me…380 hours of community service…It was a blessing to know that I'm able to get back on my feet and get a car for my family... I lost every job due to my driver’s license suspension, but now things are looking good. My family is happy and I just can't wait until I get my new car. Thank you!” 

Not only do the clients get satisfaction, but the city attorneys that assist with the resolutions are gratified, such as Deputy City Attorney Steve Houchin, who says, “As a Neighborhood Prosecutor, I work to identify and solve quality of life issues that matter most to our communities.” He added, “Homelessness, one of the most pressing issues in our city today, is a good example of an issue that cannot be solved through traditional enforcement.” 

Houchin continued, “Our Homeless Citation Clinic is a powerful example of how we can use our resources to intelligently and compassionately assist the homeless. I have seen first-hand the difference it makes. I have met with men and women who say they're trying to turn their lives around, but are plagued with years of tickets, thousands of dollars in fines, and warrants for offenses like jaywalking and drinking in public. 

The beauty of our incentive-based program is that it helps homeless individuals clear these barriers while at the same time leading them down a path of recovery. It gives them hope and restores some dignity to their lives. You should see the look on some of the clients’ faces when they're told they can quickly clear years of tickets and fines -- it's very powerful.” 

His take away? “It is deeply gratifying to play a role in the effort to end homelessness, along with so many other passionate people and agencies. This is one of many reasons why I get up every day excited to go to work.” 

How does it work? Simple: show up at the clinic and take a number, sit with a caseworker who will help you fill out your paperwork. Meet with an attorney who will search the DMV traffic database for your violations and then offer you a resolution to exchange hours for wiping away violations. Then, you select a service provider from many available at the clinic and you do your hours there. After you do your hours, the service provider submits it to the City Attorney who will advise the DMV to clear your record. 

You now have the freedom to get on with your life. Your tickets and violations are no longer the sword of Damocles hanging over your head. 

Wrapping up the day, Elizabeth Kasarjian from the City Attorney’s office provided some information that, unlike the mind-numbing metrics some politicos throw at us, cast a picture of a successful program that can work across the county in all supervisorial districts, not just the city. Mandated to be held six time a year, the HEART program’s Homeless Citation Clinics have been held in Skid Row, Venice, Sylmar, Los Angeles, and Hollywood in just the past five months. According to Kasarjian, “Our next clinic will be in Long Beach and we will continue to hold Clinics this year (our first year). Additional funding is not needed as the program was funded for three years.” 

Every now and then the taxpayers and the disadvantaged, the politicos and the bureaucrats join forces in a successful perfect storm. But the City Attorney’s HEART program of Homeless Citation Clinics is more than a “storm" – it’s a climate changer. Those that have felt there is no way out of the burdens of traffic citations, failures to appear and low level charges can now walk away free and clear, like the aftermath of a thunderstorm. 

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the MidCity West Community Council, and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.