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Street Justice

Street court clears homeless of old charges and fines.

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At the foot of the escalator of the Cook Convention Center last Thursday, the room opened up to a crowd of 200 people waiting in chairs to enter the main room of Project Homeless Connect 2.

Once admitted into the main room, each guest was paired with a volunteer to guide them through partitions of services including Social Security, identification, veterans, medical, housing, and legal, which included the new "street court."

While this was the second year of Memphis' Project Homeless Connect (a national effort to provide basic services and housing options for the homeless), it was the first run of the street court. The makeshift general sessions court was set up to clear the homeless of legal impediments to finding employment and housing.

"The idea behind Project Homeless Connect is that you take something away," said Josh Spickler with the Shelby County Public Defender's Office. "When you leave, you have something tangible: a haircut, a housing application, or, in our case, an order that says your court costs are waived."

Spickler was responsible for organizing the street court at this year's event. Judge Karen Massey presided over the court, while the Public Defender's Office worked alongside volunteers from the University of Memphis' Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and the Baker Donelson law firm.

Tom Williams, vice president of the law school's Public Action Law Society, said many of the court costs associated with the cases have lain dormant for 10 to 15 years.

"The city's obviously not getting any money out of that arrangement, and it's a real impediment to these people's lives moving in the right direction," Williams said. "This allows them to wipe the slate and us to focus on moving them forward as opposed to punishing someone continually for being indigent."

The indigent waited in chairs before the judge's table while volunteer aides sat next to them, some chatting and joking, others remaining quiet.

"Everyone has a wonderful attitude. We're here to help," said Jennifer Mitchell with the Public Defender's Office. "When you work in a system long enough, you know things aren't perfect."

The pace increased after lunch when the records were delivered to the court. Ernest Pernell smiled after a $10 fine associated with a previous DUI charge was dismissed.

"There's a lot of people in the same situation I'm in who aren't bad people," said Quentin Thompson, who was waiting to get his misdemeanors expunged. "They just aren't getting a chance. Today gives me hope that the opportunity for a chance is coming."

Williams said the misdemeanors many were seeking to expunge were associated with lack of housing.

"There are a lot of things we do that if we didn't have homes would be illegal. If you are living on the streets and you're intoxicated, then you're publicly intoxicated, as opposed to going into a bar or being in your house."

Many of those seeking services said bad luck led to sleeping on couches, on the streets, and in shelters. In some cases, the line between homeless and volunteer was nearly indistinguishable but for the volunteers' orange shirts and the bracelets on the wrists of the homeless.

As people walked away from the judge with newly dropped fees and expunged records, their faces took on a look nearing bewilderment, a smile tinged with disbelief.

During the course of the court from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Massey mediated 20 cases, while the legal aides provided 161 attendees with legal counseling.

Aside from legal matters, 1,204 guests of Project Homeless Connect received 708 housing screenings: 44 people were approved for housing and two were transported into permanent housing arrangements.

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