When Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn learned about Redondo Beach’s success with its homeless court initiative, which the city established in 2019, she became an instant champion of the concept.
Last year, she helped Long Beach launch its homeless court.
And now, she’s paying to bring the program to the South Bay’s largest city – and advocating for its expansion even further.
Hahn met with local and state officials in Torrance on Monday evening, Sept. 12, to discuss that city’s impending homeless court and its efficacy in reducing homelessness and recidivism not only in the South Bay, but also in the state as a whole.
“It was the most amazing thing for me and I came away completely sold on the idea,” Hahn said about her visit to Redondo’s court. “I thought it was a model that really was one of the pieces of the puzzle for our homeless crisis in LA County.”
Hahn’s office has provided $240,000 to fund the first year of Torrance’s court, said Kyla Coates, justice and mental health deputy for the supervisor.
Homeless court, a program that exists in multiple cities across the county, provides unhoused individuals a chance to get their criminal charges dismissed in exchange for taking a series of steps toward regaining housing and employment.
Torrance intends to hold the first court session by the end of the year, said City Attorney Patrick Sullivan. Judge Rene Gilbertson, who runs Redondo’s court, will also preside over Torrance’s. The Torrance program will be similar to Redondo’s; it will take place at the Ken Miller Recreation Center, in the Torrance Civic Center.
Hahn and Sullivan discussed those plans with state Attorney General Rob Bonta and other elected officials on Monday. They also toured Torrance’s recently opened Tiny Home Village.
Bonta is researching potentially expanding the homeless court model statewide.
The meeting came the week after Los Angeles County released the results of its 2022 point-in-time homeless count.
While that survey showed yet another countywide increase, the South Bay actually saw its homeless population decline slightly over the past two years.
Local officials have credited various initiatives in the South Bay, including homeless courts, tiny home shelters and other investments, for helping reduce homelessness in the region.
“This count may contain signs of progress, but no one is going to celebrate when there are this many people sleeping on our streets,” Hahn said in a statement last week when the homeless count results came out. “More cities need to step up and build tiny homes. It is a model that works.”
Tiny homes provide unhoused people with private living spaces while they work to find permanent housing and employment.
Homeless courts, meanwhile, focus on removing the legal obstacles that may prevent them from doing so.
Those obstacles include misdemeanor charges, bench warrants for failing to appear in court and traffic violations. If left unaddressed, these charges can become barriers to accessing education, employment and housing.
By enrolling in the court, unhoused individuals have their criminal proceedings put on pause while they work toward a series of mandated goals such as getting mental health care, completing substance abuse programs, undergoing work training and applying for housing vouchers.
If participants successfully complete their personalized goals, their charges will be reduced or, in many cases, dropped altogether.
Such programs have had some success.
Since Redondo created its homeless court, for example, 31 participants have graduated and 21 are still participating. Only five have dropped out and while two others have died, said Senior Deputy City Prosecutor Joy Ford.
Redondo Beach’s homeless count recorded a 44% decrease in homelessness from 2020 to 2022 – from 176 individuals to 99.
“I love that the city has been a laboratory of innovation to provide a potential solution to a problem,” Bonta said about Redondo Beach’s program. “The data shows that homeless rates have gone down and they lead with love and compassion and support and make sure that folks who are touched by the criminal justice system have a pathway to overcome homelessness.”
Inspired by Redondo’s success, Hermosa Beach opened its own court program in June.
Manhattan Beach also tried to establish a homeless court by partnering with Redondo Beach to prosecute its misdemeanors locally. But District Attorney George Gascon rejected this proposal in March, saying the DA’s Office will continue to prosecute Manhattan Beach’s misdemeanors.
Homeless courts, proponents say, are designed to be welcoming, non-threatening environments and are meant to help participants rather than punish them.
Redondo Beach’s program, for example, takes place in an outdoor parking lot, per a COVID-19 adaptation that has since stuck.
“The results are much better; people are less afraid,” said Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb. “Going to a parking lot on a beautiful beach day is very different than going to the courthouse.”
The court days are also paired with resource fairs, at which participants can meet with the service providers who will help them work on their goals. These immediate connections lead to better outcomes than asking court participants to track down service providers on their own time, Webb said.
Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who represents most of the South Bay and attended Monday’s meeting, is a big advocate for homeless courts and has introduced legislation to help scale it up statewide.
“I worked closely with Redondo Beach this year to share and take statewide their successful homeless court model,” Muratsuchi said in a written statement. “We introduced AB 2220 to provide state funding for more homeless courts throughout the state so that we can provide wraparound services like mental health and addiction treatment along with housing assistance and get people off the streets.”
Bonta, for his part, said he is interested in ways that his office could support more homeless courts, such as by establishing a statewide grant program.
“I’m excited by it. I’m inspired by it,” Bonta said. “I want to see how I can help partner with the great folks who come together down here to make it work to see if other cities and other places can benefit as well.”