By: Contra Costa County DCSS
Homeless Court is a special court session held across the country in local homeless shelters designed so homeless citizens can resolve outstanding misdemeanors such as traffic tickets, unauthorized removal of shopping carts, disorderly conduct, sleeping on sidewalks, etc. If these tickets aren’t addressed, driver’s licenses get suspended and penalties can multiply, quickly resulting in thousands of dollars of debt and making it impossible for struggling individuals to move forward in life.
Contra Costa County Department of Child Support Services (Contra Costa County DCSS) attends Homeless Court at a local homeless shelter in Concord, CA. This courtroom looks quite a bit different than the one the department is accustomed to. On most days, the courtroom at the shelter functions as a cafeteria for shelter residents, but on every second Thursday, it transforms into a court of law presided over by Judge Steven K. Austin. His bench is a small folding table at one end of the room next to a Formica counter in front of an open kitchen. What happens there can result in participants changing the trajectory of their lives for the better.
Contra Costa County DCSS has been attending Homeless Court since 2012. A consistent department presence at these proceedings has been helpful in building trust within the community. Contra Costa County DCSS’ involvement has also been a great opportunity to network with program advocates from other community partners and has allowed for many opportunities to further educate our partners and has resulted in more open communication between the department, the program advocates, and the program participants.
Contra Costa County DCSS receives the Homeless Court calendar in advance and cross-checks it for cases in the Child Support Enforcement system. Staff use this opportunity to serve legal documents on Contra Costa cases and on behalf of other counties, educate the parents paying child support on their options, and assist them in taking action based on their specific situation. They work with the parents on multiple issues, including license releases and how to file for modifications.
Homeless Court is yet another example of innovative thinking in government, finding an unexpected way to bring help to an underserved and hard-to-reach community and doing great good in the process.