Homeless Court Helps Thousands Try to Put Their Lives Back TogetherJanuary 15, 2020
It was December 13, 2013 when Dena Walker did the last of her drugs in the back of a police car. Dena grew up with mental health issues that led to an addictive behavior. She began using drugs at the age of 11. Throughout her life she was arrested multiple times and on that day, she knew she wanted a different life for herself.
On her release, Dena began volunteering at the House of Refuge Sunnyslope while working at Wendy’s when she was released. Dena was introduced to a man named Jim at the House of Refuge Sunnyslope. Jim told her about the homeless court on the Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix, where she could resolve her fines and misdemeanor cases throughout Maricopa County. Dena went through the court and is now a colleague with the woman who was her case manager Shira Zias.
“The homeless court is amazing because it gives people a chance to feel like ‘The Man’ isn’t out to get them,” Zias said. “The judges are only here to hear about their good work and to congratulate them on no longer being in debt to the county or whatever their fines may reside.”
The Maricopa County Homeless Court began in 2006, piggybacking off of San Diego’s homeless court system. Jeremy Mussman, Patience Huntwork and Kevin Kane were all working in different areas of Maricopa County government, when they began to notice patterns. Patterns that included, people being arrested for suspended drivers licenses, warrants going out for misdemeanor unpaid fines and even very low level felonies, and that most of these people were homeless.
It took about one year before the court was opened, but Mussman said it was worth the wait. There are now 13 states with 31 homeless courts according to the National Center for State Courts.
Before going through the homeless court, it might be difficult for someone who experienced or is experiencing homelessness to get their license or get jobs because they don’t have their license.
“A lot of this is because people get suspended licenses for outstanding fines, but then they continue driving because they have no other way to get to work and they get arrested for having a suspended license,” Mussman said.
Each person going through the homeless court has to do a certain amount of “restitution hours” that is specific to each individual and the amount of money they owe for the fines. There are a list of approved providers that people can go through but in Dena’s case, she was already doing hours with House of Refuge that wasn’t approved by the court, but the judge still made those hours count.“As long as they are in programs that are helping them, it doesn’t matter what programs. Is this person moving forward? Are they trying to better their lives?” Zias said. The court wants to see improvement.
Dena completed the Homeless Court in 2016, where she received a certificate and had her fines forgiven.
“The programming isn’t easy, getting your life back together after falling apart isn’t easy,” Dena said. She worked at Wendy’s for the first two years she was out of prison.
Staying clean wasn’t easy and her busy schedule of work, recovery and community service made her a wreck, Walker said, “but I did it. I got up everyday, caught the bus and I went to work because that’s what I had to do.”
When she got home, she did a yoga or cooking class or attended church and whatever her community service hours required that day, she was exhausted.
She then went on to get her peer certification, that says she’s capable of sharing her story with others. And those around her say that Walker is wonderful with newly recovering addicts and people trying to get out of homelessness or a life that is one crisis after another.
“Dena gets the people when they want to change their lives but they don’t know how or when they’re struggling,” Zias said.
For Dena, she wants to help those who feel like they’re lost and alone, and she has hard-won expertise.
“Every individual I come across, I know what they need. When this person comes to me and they’re so broken, I’m like ‘I know how to relate to you and how to guide people,’” Dena said.
Her older sister Dani Walker, has also struggled with homelessness and drugs, but is currently seven months out of prison and working at Burger King and getting her life back as well with the help of the homeless court in Phoenix.
“I might be the older sister but I’m following in her footsteps,” Dani said.
Dena and Dani Walker embracing after sharing their stories.
“We have mentor nights, connections nights, there’s yoga, we do celebratory recovery, there’s cooking classes, there’s a lot of ways that we can get hours,” Dani said.
Although Dani’s fines have been resolved in Maricopa County, she said she has fines in other counties, which means there is still a hold on her driver’s license and unresolved fines.
Zias said that it is common for individuals to go through one homeless court, only to have fines unsolvable in other counties.
“For those ones it’s more of here’s what they’ve done, what these counties have forgiven, and hope they forgive the fines as well,” Zias said.
The court doesn’t work for everyone, its creators admit. Of the x,xxx who have gone throught the court, vowing to change, only about what percentage of them succeed like Dena Walker did.
The homeless court meets every Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. on the Human Services Campus located on 12th Avenue in Phoenix and it is a room filled with hope.
On a recent Tuesday, 20 hopefuls sat in a small classroom-like room in the back of the campus, where the judge sat eye level behind a desk, in everyday, business casual clothes, unlike a normal courtroom where a judge sits higher in a gown.
When the homeless court first began, judges would volunteer to sit at the docket all day. As the years went on, and the court grew from the beginning three cities to a state-wide approved by Legislature, Kane said that they needed to pay judges. Now, once a month when the court is held judges are rotated from each city to sit on the docket for that day.
Once each person is called forward, accompanied by their case managers, they told how many community hours they completed, if they’re actively looking for work or have a job, if so how long they’ve been there, and other information the judge should know about their progress.
Once the case manager has spoken, the judge then asks the individual how their life has been since, what they’ve been doing, then congratulates them and hands them a folder with a certificate saying they’ve graduated through the Homeless Court.
“It’s like graduation,” Mussman said. “Everyone is so happy and full of cheer. It’s a really cool thing to see.” Mussman said the highlight of his career was being apart of the Homeless Court and helping those who felt helpless, find a new way of life.
A tall middle aged man, covered in tattoos, shook the hand of the judge with the biggest smile and went back to his seat looking happier than ever. He stared at the folder with relief and happiness as the court went on to graduate other individuals.
Among the individuals there were single mothers, recovering addicts, juvenile delinquents who needed to be steered in the right direction, and once they had that certificate in their hands, it was like nothing else mattered.
In 2018 alone, there were a total of 374 cases heard that resulted in 64,522 restitution hours and $296,567.87 in fines resolved.
“I feel like all this stuff happened because I felt like nobody cared,” Dena said. “I want people to know that someone does care.”
Written by: Ashli Digiambattista