Helping people turn the corner on homelessness
Special court offers people experiencing homelessness in Birmingham a second chance
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Timothy Jackson needed a victory. It didn’t dawn on him until that very sentence was articulated by Presiding Judge Andra Sparks of the Birmingham Municipal Court.
“Tim, you need a victory,” Judge Sparks said to Jackson, 54, as he sat before the judge wearing a black leather jacket. The two men, around the same age, were eye to eye, seated in metal folding chairs across from each other at a wooden conference room table.
This exchange happened down the street from the courthouse, inside a small conference room at Boutwell Auditorium for a monthly docket known as Turning Point, a special court for people experiencing homelessness who need to resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants.
“We talked almost like we were on the back porch,” Jackson said. “He wasn’t trying to put me down in any way. I took it like, you need to stand up, be a man in your recovery process and start being responsible. I almost cried, because it made me think, and that just stuck with me,” he said.
Jackson ended up before Judge Sparks after a chain of events that is all too common for people experiencing addiction or mental illness. He was arrested for public intoxication during a period of heavy drinking in which he blacked out and woke up in a jail cell. Jackson was placed on probation, but failed to complete the terms.
He went right back to drinking and living on the streets, but always looked over his shoulder because he knew violating his probation would eventually catch up with him.
“Every time I saw a police officer, I ran,” he said. “I was getting tired of living the life of a transient, knowing I could do better.”
While Jackson was staying at the Firehouse Shelter in Birmingham, he spotted a flyer for Volunteer Lawyers Birmingham, and finally decided to ask for help. He was afraid to go back to municipal court, but a volunteer lawyer recommended his placement on the Turning Point docket.
“I knew from being in the regular court system, if you miss a date, the cuffs come out,” Jackson said. “With this, I didn’t have to fear that I’d go to jail, we were able to work together on a resolution.”
The fear of arrest can lead to missed court appearances, creating a cycle of fines and fees that are especially challenging for people experiencing poverty, with no reliable methods of communication or transportation.
“It was our understanding that people were intimidated about coming here and we didn’t want to make anyone afraid of us,” Judge Sparks said. “For so long, all they got here was finger wagging and punishment. We’re trying to change that.”
Birmingham’s Turning Point Court, sometimes referred to simply as Homeless Court, began almost five years ago, a natural outgrowth of the city’s annual Project Homeless Connect, which offers a full day of services in one place for men, women and children experiencing homelessness. Judge Sparks said the need each year was so huge, it made sense to create a monthly docket.
“Some of the people who end up in Homeless Court can’t go to any shelter, they have burned every bridge,” Sparks said. “If we can extend a hand to help them, it makes Birmingham better. Our motto is to hold people accountable with compassion,” he said.
A typical Turning Point docket may include 15 defendants. Volunteer lawyers help them navigate the process of plea bargaining, and the court works to connect defendants to services like counseling and education. Typical cases can involve traffic violations or “nuisance” charges like disorderly conduct, trespassing or public intoxication.
Crimes that would not be a good fit include domestic violence, driving under the influence and cases involving guns.
Judge Sparks said because the defendants meet the definition of indigence, he gets creative in how they resolve issues. He may ask a defendant to read to their children, spend time with their family, obtain their driver’s license or GED, or do community service to work off fines. They must provide documentation to Judge Sparks of their progress at the monthly Turning Point Court inside Boutwell Auditorium.
“It’s not so much a dollar for dollar thing,” said Sparks. “It’s about helping people make progress on whatever life journey they have and giving them support.”
Timothy Jackson did 42 hours of community service, picking up roadside litter on Saturdays to fulfill his obligation to the court and complete his probation.
“Instead of looking at it like a punishment, I looked at it like paying my debt,” said Jackson. “I actually got a job application at my community service. It opened doors for me.”
Defendants are referred to Turning Point by shelters and Volunteer Lawyers Birmingham, an affiliate of the Birmingham Bar Association. In addition to providing free legal help for Birmingham’s homeless community, Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers runs multiple free legal help desks each month.
Attorney John McElheny volunteered at Turning Point Court for the first time in November, 2018. McElheny spent the past decade working for a large firm and didn’t make it to many volunteer opportunities. He recently went into private practice and expects to volunteer again when his calendar allows.
“It’s inspirational that our city is on the forefront of providing a service like this,” McElheny said. “This gives me a sense of a greater good, rather than just working for the man.”
Eddie Davis, a former truck driver, was referred to Turning Point Court in order to resolve outstanding traffic tickets, some of them dating back to the 1990’s. Davis said he drove for years on a suspended license because he was unable to pay the tickets, as high as $450.
Davis worked off the fines doing community service and said once his obligation is settled, he hopes to get his license back.
“When you’re unable to work, that’s a lot of money,” Davis said. “Every police car I used to see, I thought they were coming after me. I have hope now.”
The first homeless court originated in San Diego, California in 1989. In late 2018, Judge Sparks attended a homeless summit and found out 13 other states have homeless courts.
Birmingham is the only city with one in Alabama, and Sparks said it speaks to the collaboration between Birmingham police, courts, mental health and homeless services.
Timothy Jackson recently graduated from the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center program and had a job interview. He considers both a victory, but also hopes to reconnect with his adult daughter and repair family estrangement from years of drinking and mistakes.
“I just want to be at peace with myself, not having to run to a substance and back to the street,” he said. “I can finally look in the mirror and say, I love Tim.”
The next Project Homeless Connect is Saturday, February 16, 2019 at Boutwell Auditorium. The event will offer a day of free services including legal, medical, housing and domestic relations.
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