By Brienne Prusak, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 13, 2011
Renee Blaze was faced with drug and alcohol-related offenses in the city of Ann Arbor two years ago, but instead of facing a district judge, she got to appear before a court that was a little less intimidating.
Instead of having to go through the city’s traditional court system, Blaze was allowed to participate in Street Outreach Court — a program that allows homeless individuals an alternative court experience and guides them on the path to recovery.
Developed in October 2005, Street Outreach Court was designed to provide the homeless population of Ann Arbor with more of a welcoming court system and also give a helping hand. Spearheaded by Ann Arbor District Judge Elizabeth Hines, the court tries disadvantaged citizens with unpaid tickets, fines and arrest warrants.
Blaze said the program prevented her from getting “lost in the system,” and inspired a sense of self-motivation and responsibility.
“If I wanted to be successful in it, then I had to put in the footwork,” Blaze said. “The process makes you still be accountable and keeps a closer eye on you.”
To be eligible for the court, the defendant must first be referred by a social service agency like Ozone House, SafeHouse or the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County-Ann Arbor. A community agency then has to sponsor and work with the defendant to create a plan to find housing, alcohol and drug rehabilitation services and jobs before utilizing the Street Outreach Court.
Court sessions are held bimonthly at the Washtenaw County Annex located across the street from the Washtenaw County Courthouse on North Main Street.
Hines said she thinks the program is an effective way to let the city’s homeless population know there is support for them in the community and that there are ways to improve their difficult situations.
“I like to think that with this program, people get hope and see that if they’re actually helping themselves, there are a lot of other people who will help them to get back on their feet and off the street,” Hines said.
The Street Outreach Court receives no grant funding and is run solely by volunteers. According to Ann Savickas, probation supervisor for the city of Ann Arbor, it is the only court of this kind in the Midwest. The court has closed 479 cases and cleared 88 bench warrants.
Savickas added that the Outreach court's intervention has saved the city 3,656 jail days, or days that homeless residents would have been required to spend in jail if they were unable to pay fines. The time in jail is equivalent to approximately $310,760 in court fees.
Hines said the court is an important resource for homeless individuals because it helps relieve the burden of court fees and fines and alleviates worrying about daily survival.
“They may have been more concerned with where they were going eat, or where their kids were going to sleep that night,” Hines said.
Anthony Shall, a client of the Street Outreach Court, said the program guided him out of what seemed like a dire situation and helped him move forward.
“If they weren’t there, I don’t know if I would have made it,” Shall said. “I’ve never had so much help.”
While the people who go through the court don’t have to pay fees, Hines said there is a tradeoff because they are more likely to find jobs and pay taxes in the future, therefore financially contributing to the city.
“They pay in a different form of currency,” Hines said. “If (the money) could be used to keep their housing and support their families, and they can get a job, that’s just so much better for the community.”
Hines said she was inspired to implement the program after hearing about a similar court system in San Diego, Calif. The program is an addition to Ann Arbor’s Blueprint to End Homelessness — the city’s plan to help the homeless in the community.
Hines said she wanted to develop a fair legal system for homeless individuals, since many of the cases she’d heard in the past involved quality of life offenses and minor misdemeanors like indecent exposure for urinating in public — offenses that people who have houses and private bathrooms don’t often receive.
Everyone in the community has been extremely supportive of her “collaborative community project,” Hines said, including the Ann Arbor Police Department, who she said has enjoyed helping the homeless.
“(The police) like not just giving a ticket to someone but actually helping that person,” Hines said.