Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley prepares for drawing of small prizes at the end of a day's session of Orange County's Homeless Outreach Court. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Wednesday, March 8, 2011 | Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley’s courtroom is in many ways typical.

Lindley wears a black robe and there’s an American flag to her right and a California state flag to her left. The bailiffs are there too — three of them.

But the justice Lindley administers in this courtroom is anything but conventional.

When Lindley dismissed tickets and other citations totaling more than $1,200 in fines against defendant Myrna Rojas on a recent afternoon, the entire courtroom, including bailiffs and the judge, erupted in applause and cheers.

“She’s (Rojas) got so much stuff to be proud of,” beamed Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Nicolalde, in addressing the judge.

Welcome to Orange County’s Homeless Outreach Court, a groundbreaking program that tries to get at the root of homelessness and help those living on the streets turn their lives around.

It’s a mobile court that rotates its weekly docket among four locations around the county close to areas where the homeless can be found, including earlier this month at the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin.

Lindley’s justice is orderly and, given the court’s caseload, as swift as possible. But it is not blind justice — it looks directly at the troubles of the defendants and acts to change things. If a defendant is a no-show, a warrant is not issued — instead, the defendant is “invited” to come back. And there is no contempt of Lindley’s court.

In the nine years since homeless court began, roughly 1,000 men and women have completed the program, which establishes a set of goals for each defendant. All have to complete community service assignments, and then, depending on the case, defendants have to attend schools, find jobs or kick their alcohol or drug problems.

“Community service gives them self-respect and dignity,” Lindley said. “It encourages them to continue on a path to wellness.”

In addition, she said, it teaches “you don’t get something for nothing.”

Presiding over this court is just part of Lindley’s duties as a judge. She also presides over other special courts for veterans and mentally ill people.

The court claims a high success rate — 75 percent of those who completed the program in 2008 had no arrests for serious offenses through 2010, according to the court’s website.

“Patience is really a very important part of the success of this court,” said Jean Wilkinson, chief assistant public defender.

That Program Will Never Work

Orange County began its special court for the homeless in 2003, and patterned it after one in San Diego County. But Orange County, according to Lindley, added a big difference.

In order to qualify for program in San Diego, a homeless person must have been staying in a shelter for about a month, showing they now had a stable living environment, Lindley said.

Orange County had nowhere near enough homeless shelter beds to accommodate the roughly 8,000 people who have no place to live on any given day. “Jean (Wilkinson) said let’s do outreach” to the homeless who slept in parks or cars or anywhere they could, Lindley said.

“The other homeless courts laughed at us — they said, ‘you can’t do that,’” she said.

It is a collaborative effort of several local agencies, including the Public Defender; District Attorney; Department of Housing and Community Services; area police departments and the numerous nonprofit and other organizations that try to aid the homeless.

A Show of Respect

Rojas said she had nothing when she came to homeless court.

“I was using drugs to cure my pain coming from an abusive father,” she said. “That’s how I destroyed my life. I had a job and a daughter. I lost everything.”

A year and three months ago, homeless, she checked herself into a rehab program run by the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin. It was during her stint in rehab that she first appeared in homeless court.

Last week, Rojas, who still lives at the Rescue Mission, stood before Lindley, a success.

To cheers from other defendants and court personnel, she heard the judge dismiss citations and fines that she had accumulated during here years of drug abuse. “I have my family back,” she said after her hearing. “I have a job. I’m saving money for a car.”

Lindley and Wilkinson said one key to the program is an understanding that there are setbacks on the road to recovery. Lindley doesn’t send offenders to jail for recovery lapses.

She said research used to establish the program showed that respect and praise for accomplishment, no matter how small, does more to move people away from homelessness than punishment. Many of the homeless, she said, come from backgrounds where they weren’t treated with respect.

“Everything we do is research based,” she said. “What you see me doing in the court is done because the research shows that it works.”

A military veteran in homeless court last week is an example. His home was his car but he accumulated so many parking tickets his car was impounded, leaving him nowhere to sleep.

A veterans organization worked to help him find housing, he was able to get two part-time jobs and apparently will qualify for disability assistance.

“I’m proud to share that success with the court,” Wilkinson told the judge. The veteran was told to return to court in May for a progress update and was given a round of applause.

On the cases went, about 30 altogether on the day last week, an unusually light calendar. Each case came with its own sad story of bad breaks and false starts.

They included a single father who was creating a more stable life but can’t get a driver’s license until his outstanding tickets are dismissed; a man well-known to the staff of homeless court who comes and goes depending on whether he’s taking his medication; a man who was homeless, pulled things together, was working and then got laid off.

“Most of them do suffer from mental illness” or substance abuse, said Lindley. “It’s really important someone in my position give them respect, encouragement (for working to improve their lives) and praise.”

When the calendar is cleared for the day, Lindley pulls out the final sign that this in no ordinary court. There’s a drawing for small prizes.

While those who had cases before the judge sit and wait, names are drawn for two $10 gift cards to Subway and Burger King and a one-day bus pass.

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