But the providers of Orange County’s Outreach Court are still committed to their cause.
In the summer of 2012, Outreach Court was created for homeless people or those at risk of being homeless who had been charged with a crime. The court follows a therapeutic court model that focuses on finding the root of the problem rather than the judicial consequences.
There were 43 homeless people referred to the Outreach Court in 2013 , according to data from the Orange County Courthouse.
Jeff Nieman , assistant district attorney for Orange County, noticed a problem with homeless recidivism when he first joined the district attorney’s office.
“I recognized that we had an issue of homeless people essentially in a revolving door going in and out of jail for short terms,” he said. “They weren’t making any type of progress towards a happier life.”
Nieman said prior to court hearings, mental health providers, members of the court, law enforcement and representatives from Community Empowerment Fund , Housing for New Hope the UNC School of Law and the UNC School of Social Work meet to create a treatment plan for each person.
“When someone is referred to the court, we do a clinical assessment to determine what their needs are related to housing, medical and psychiatric issues, substance abuse and any other kinds of assistance.” said Caroline Ginley , programs coordinator for the Community Resource Court, another UNC-based therapeutic court model that helps individuals with mental health issues charged with crimes .
Elizabeth Waugh-Duford , temporary coordinator of homelessness programs for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, said the court often loses homeless people who aren’t able to stick to their treatment plans. But she says there are benefits even for those people that opt not to do the program.
Eight of last year’s 43 participants completed their treatment plan — giving the court an 18.6 percent success rate. The other 35 people chose not to participate, were unable to comply due to medical reasons or were sent back to regular court .
“It is not necessarily a failure when people do not follow through because they have made connections with community advisors and they know about more resources,” Waugh-Duford said.
Marie Lamoureaux, the programs and special projects manager for the district court judge’s office , said the defendant’s treatment plan lasts at least six months. But if participants have unstable compliance, they sometimes have to remain in the Outreach Court system longer.
Nieman said the Outreach Court provides support for people who are not used to getting any attention.
“People who are homeless are used to the world not knowing who they are and not caring about their life,” Nieman said.
“This court provides them with a forum where they walk into a court room and people know their name and know what is going on in their life.”
Sarah Furman , a crisis counselor for the Chapel Hill Police Department, said the unit serves as another community support system.
She said the department provides information from a law-enforcement perspective to recommend people to Outreach Court and to help connect them with need-based services.
“If they are sleeping on a bench and get cited, the team can look at what other things the person might need to move them forward in a healthy and successful direction,” Furman said.
Most cases referred to Outreach Court are people charged with misdemeanor offenses, said Nieman.
And most defendants who were referred to Outreach Court were charged with multiple offenses, according to data from the Orange County Courthouse.
Twenty-six percent of the offenses were trespassing, while larceny and breaking and entering each made up 14 percent of the offenses .
Waugh-Duford said homeless people repeatedly commit misdemeanor crimes because they don’t have alternatives.
“For example, the offense of urinating in public,” Waugh-Duford said.
“If you are homeless and businesses say restrooms are for customers only, what choice do you have about where you relieve yourself?”
Currently, Outreach Court has no funding. Lamoureaux added if the court grows in the future, there is possibility that grant money will be provided.
Nieman said there are a lot of government employees and private non-profit employees who took on extra responsibilities to make the court successful.
“An amazing thing about this is that everybody who works on this court does it as an add-on to what they already do,” Nieman said.