Homeless Court Helps People Experiencing Homelessness, Breaking Down Barriers to Housing & Employment
Jane Lawson and Thomas McConville had spent nearly half of their 13-year relationship in a situation where they found themselves experiencing homelessness together. Their journey to secure housing and a new start in life began with their own will and perseverance to make a change. The City of Long Beach is proud to have been there to support them on this journey with compassion and supportive services. A strong network of care stood beside them all along the way, including the City’s Multi-Service Center (MSC) and the City Prosecutor’s Office.
“During visits to the MSC, looking for housing, we made a connection with Samantha Carmona from the Health Department’s Homeless Services Bureau,” McConville explained. “Samantha helped us get a Section 8 emergency housing voucher. Without that we’d be back on the street.”
“Samantha has helped us so much,” McConville continued. “She made multiple calls, keeping us up to date on services and reminding us of appointments.”
In addition to finding a place to live with Thomas, Jane was able to get an old warrant expunged at the MSC. “I’m so grateful,” she said. “With our own apartment and our little dog Lilly, it’s a whole different world.”
For twenty-three years, the City of Long Beach's Department of Health and Human Services (Health Department) has been operating the MSC, a facility on the City's west side in which the Health Department and a network of partners, including the City Prosecutor’s office, provide a wide spectrum of services for people experiencing homelessness, like Jane and Thomas. June marked the one-year anniversary of the Homeless Court, an MSC service that often goes a long way in helping people experiencing homelessness work towards self sufficiency.
Long Beach’s Homeless Court was started last year as a result of discussions between LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn and Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, with the dual goals of resolving legal barriers for participants already engaged in services and connecting people experiencing homelessness to services.
"Homeless Court started as a pilot project to help people receive critical services and stay connected," said Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert. "We can help with active cases, old warrants, and even with expungements in certain cases, and we handle them here at the MSC where everyone agrees the environment is better than a courtroom.”
Once a month, eligible people, usually referred by case workers and outreach teams from the City’s Homeless Services Bureau (HSB), can be seen lining up at the MSC for a hearing with a judge who appears on a giant TV screen via video conference. In additional rooms, participants have the opportunity to expunge past misdemeanor or infraction charges.
"Our office appreciates the support of the Courts, especially Judge Lori R. Behar, who has been instrumental in making Homeless Court a success since it began," Haubert added. "She is passionate about helping people and this is a great way for her to do that."
The Homeless Court expands the MSC's "one-stop shop" approach; in addition to having access to basic services such as a medical clinic, hot showers, meals, mail, phone charging, and job readiness, people experiencing homelessness have a streamlined process to address cases on their criminal record. The Homeless Court was created to help resolve these legal issues and break down barriers to housing and employment.
"The Homeless Court at the MSC is a more approachable environment than going to the courthouse Downtown, which can be a little intimidating," said Social Worker Gigi Zanganeh, MSW, who works in the office of the City Prosecutor. Zanganeh is instrumental in coordinating MSC programs with the Prosecutor's Office, the Health Department, and the programs partnered with Homeless Court.
“Having a social worker on staff is one of the components that makes Homeless Court work,” said City Prosecutor Doug Haubert. “Prosecutors are not social workers, but having in-house knowledge in a person like Gigi Zanganeh, who is an expert in this area, allows us to focus on the right cases and ensure that people experiencing homelessness are getting the help they need.”
The Homeless Court Initiative was launched by Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn. She secured financing for a Homeless Court in Redondo Beach through a Community Development Block Grant, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Hahn approached the City of Long Beach with a similar proposal, and the MSC's Homeless Court program was born.
"Adding a Homeless Court as an element of the MSC is a perfect addition to the center and the staff that our local homeless community is already familiar with," said Tyler Ahtonen, MSC Coordinator since last November, who has many years of homeless outreach and shelter management experience in multiple counties.
Homeless Court registrations occur on an online portal created by Zanganeh. "More than half of the registrations we get are coming from outreach workers or by MSC staff," she explained."Other referrals come from 'Quality of Life' officers from the Long Beach Police Department, or a case manager from another nonprofit, such as the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the Illumination Foundation, and theLong Beach Rescue Mission, but most come from the HSB."
Paul Duncan, HSB Manager, noted that the Homeless Court, "changes the way people experiencing homelessness interact with the criminal justice system, helping them expunge activities that had to do with just getting by."
The Homeless Court and the many other services provided by the MSC keep Long Beach at the forefront of cities offering assistance to community members experiencing homelessness.
"Attendance at the Homeless Court has increased because the word gets out among people who are living on the street, which makes it easier for case managers to bring in clients," said Deputy City Prosecutor Laura Reimer. "The efficacy of the Homeless Court program is that we meet people where they are, with the ultimate goal of removing barriers that are preventing them from getting jobs and becoming housed."
The journey of Jane and Thomas is a textbook example of how the MSC and its array of services and connections can help get lives back on track. “The first night in our new apartment, I cried,” said McConville. “We’re not sleeping on the ground in the park anymore. We are no longer out in the cold.”