Providing Access to Justice for the Homeless. Homeless Court began holding sessions in 2010 under the leadership of Judge Kathleen Coffey, First Justice of the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. The Homeless Court differs from other types of specialty courts in that the court goes to the people, running monthly sessions at Boston’s Pine Street Inn and Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. 

Homeless Court at the Pine Street Inn expanded to include statewide jurisdiction late last year, enabling people at the Pine Street Inn or Shattuck Hospital to appear at this session. “The expansion gives us the opportunity to help more folks get their lives in order and back on track as healthy, productive members of society,” says Judge Coffey.

Judge Coffey and DA Miller serving meals at the Pine Street Inn
From left, Judge Kathleen Coffey and Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Christina Miller volunteer at the Pine Street Inn's busy kitchen earlier this month. Joining them but not pictured was Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Attorney Kari Tannenbaum.

The primary purpose of the Homeless Court session is to remove legal barriers that impede recovery and stability--namely, to assist in the removal of default warrants. Outstanding default warrants are a critical obstacle often blocking a homeless person's ability to secure permanent housing, get a job, qualify for government financial benefits, or apply for a driver's license. Many drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment programs will not accept someone with an open default warrant. A recent visit to the Homeless Court session at the Pine Street Inn illustrated how quickly people can slide into homelessness, and how difficult it can be for them to escape.

The first case heard was a 43-year old Somerville man with five outstanding charges from two Trial Court Departments, all larceny charges related to funding his heroin addiction.

Standing with the help of a cane, the man told the court that in 2007, shortly after serving three years in state prison, his mother died suddenly. “I was raised by a single mom who was a great woman, but who also struggled with alcohol addiction,” he began. “She was my only stable support in life. When she died I lost my housing and everything else.”

He turned to alcohol and drugs to “numb everything.” A severe work-related back injury last August got him addicted to pain killers and eventually back to heroin, for a second time. “Hitting bottom was my wake-up call,” he said. “I knew if I kept going the way I was I’d be back in jail, in the hospital, or dead.”

By January 2016, the court helped him graduate from a men’s stabilization house. Next, his case worker at the Pine Street Inn helped him extend his insurance for a few months, enabling him to apply to three half-way houses to allow him to stay in a structured environment until he’s completely conquered his addiction.

He is in constant pain from his injury, but works with his primary care doctor to avoid relapsing, managing his pain with non-addictive medication while he undergoes methadone treatment.

Judge Coffey read a letter of recommendation from his case manager. The defendant is seen as a real leader at the house, “dedicated to his treatment and motivated for his future prospects.” He has his barber’s license and cuts hair at the shelter. The week before, he found a friend curled up on the floor from an overdose; his skin purple. The defendant performed CPR and administered Narcan before paramedics arrived. “All I could think about was my friend’s four year old child…I didn’t want him to lose his father,” he told the court, wiping his eyes.

Judge Coffey asked him: “What’s the worst part about being homeless?” He answered, “knowing that I could do better, that I could be a better person. I was always just one decision away from getting on with my life. I don’t want to die in a public restroom. This is the first time I’ve asked for help. I’m too old and too embarrassed. For the first time, I’m choosing to do this.”

The courtroom erupted in applause. “Turn around and look behind you,” Judge Coffey instructed the man. “This is your community. We’re all rooting for you. This is about you – not about the court or probation or pleasing anyone. I’m impressed with your resilience and dedication and for taking responsibility for yourself.”

Judge Coffey removed the warrants and remitted the fines, enabling the man to take the next step forward on his path to a better life.

Removing Legal Obstacles: How Homeless Court Works

  • Qualifying factors include: Defendants must live in a shelter, have an open default warrant for non-violent, non-sex-related felony, and have successfully completed substance use disorder or mental health treatment; prosecutor and defense must also agree to dismiss the case
  • Defendants and probationers must complete a variety of conditions to have their cases resolved before appearing in Homeless Court
  • The court removes their defaults and terminates their cases, enabling defendants and probationers to qualify for permanent housing and government financial benefits; and apply for jobs and drivers' licenses. Participating shelters – the Shattuck Hospital and Pine Street Inn – can link defendants to services

In case you missed it: Homeless Court Gets People Back on Track - Court Bulletin, July/August 2014