At least a dozen people stood before a judge in Hermosa Beach last week.
They sought a reprieve. They sought help. They sought a place to live. Those folks were the first in Hermosa to participate in the Housing Initiative Court, which allows people facing non-violent misdemeanor charges or municipal code violations to avoid prosecution if they complete programs and accept services focused on substance abuse, mental health issues and employment. For many, the goal is also to find permanent housing.
The concept behind what is commonly called “homeless court” has been implemented in multiple Los Angeles County cities, including Long Beach and Santa Monica. But the new Hermosa program is an extension of Redondo Beach’s Housing Initiative Court, which began in 2019. Hermosa uses Redondo’s prosecutorial services for misdemeanors.
“This is one of the compassionate ways to help folks who are unhoused in our city,” said Hermosa Beach City Manager Suja Lowenthal, “and hopefully restart their lives.”
Hermosa Beach hosts the first of four monthly outdoor sessions of the Housing Initiative Court on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The Housing Initiative Court gives people experiencing homelessness the opportunity to avoid prosecution on nonviolent misdemeanor charges or municipal code violations in exchange for accepting judge-mandated services that can eventually lead to placement in housing. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
As for Redondo Beach, its program has seen some success in helping folks turn their lives around.
Data on Redondo Beach Homeless Court
A total of 116 have attempted to complete the program since 2019, with about half of the 86 who have not graduated still pending in court; the rest have failed to appear or did not complete the program.
30 people have graduated from the Redondo program
11 to date in 2022 securing permanent housing and criminal cases dismissed
And now, Hermosa Beach is trying out the homeless court program.
Redondo, for its part, nearly formed another partnership recently.
In January, the Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach city councils approved a contract to allow the former to prosecute state misdemeanors and municipal violations for the latter — and administer a homeless court in Manhattan Beach as well.
But in March, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón denied Manhattan Beach’s request to drop his office, saying Redondo did not have the resources to handle those criminal cases, according to press reports. But the DA’s office offered potential county-led homeless court services that Manhattan Beach could explore.
At Wednesday’s court session, there were 37 cases on the calendar, Ford said. But Kelley, who was not made available for an interview, heard approximately 15 cases in the morning session, which began around 9:30 a.m. But the session ended at 11 a.m. when no one else appeared.
“The remaining people failed to appear and a bench warrant will be issued,” Ford said in an email later in the afternoon.
Wednesday’s number of no shows was unusual, Ford said. On average, the appearance rate is 78%, with a few months having perfect attendance. Normally, she said, those who do not appear are ones that are newly referred to the homeless court.
One defendant who appeared Wednesday was Jemell Donald. He is charged with possession of illegal paraphernalia, Ford said.
Donald, whose home base is Redondo, said on Wednesday that he hopes to find permanent housing in the city.
“It’s about how diligent you are to reach your goal,” he said about finding housing. “I hope to come out on top.”
Later in the day, when Donald’s case was brought before Kelley, the judge and Ford said they were concerned that his housing voucher was set to expire soon. The judge did extend the deadline, but said Donald was one of the longest involved in the program.
“I want to make sure that we’re not just coming back month after month in the same position,” Kelley said from the bench, “and that we’re making progress.”
If Donald did not complete the “wonderful opportunity” he was given, Kelley said, his case would be sent back to the Torrance courthouse. Before the next date, on Aug. 24, he must complete several objectives, including applying for a job.
“I know that you have so many people pulling for you in your corner,” Kelley said.
Various nonprofits support the homeless courts and are active in finding support and housing, including Harbor Interfaith Services, based in San Pedro, and People Assisting the Homeless, commonly known as PATH.
Gillian Stucki is a case manager for PATH, based out of its Long Beach office.
When someone is assigned to PATH, Stucki said last week, they start the housing process by helping them apply for affordable places to live.
“Some people are a lot further than others,” Stucki said in regards to finding housing.
“Some people (have graduated) but some people we’ve been working with for a year,” Stucki added. “It very much depends on the person’s journey.
Judges, meanwhile, alternate at the homeless court, Ford said. Before Kelley, the one on the bench was Judge Rene Gilbertson, who will begin a homeless court in Torrance soon.
Ford said she did not know when the Torrance homeless court will begin.
Kelley, for her part, summed up the court’s goal on Wednesday.
“We want,” Kelley told one defendant from the bench, “to set you up for success.”