An End to Homeless Debt: Pro Bono Ticket Clinics Challenge Quality-of-Life Penalties

By Alexia Arechiga

Homelessness has become a nationwide issue that affects over hundreds of thousands of individuals. With an increasing trend in criminalizing homelessness, many individuals are forced to hide from authorities to avoid misdemeanors. Most cities have laws that prohibit the possession of a shopping cart or sleeping on the sidewalk, as well as life-sustaining activities such as pitching a tent, sitting and eating in public spaces, and asking for money in public spaces. Counties have begun to take measures to prevent concentrated areas of homeless individuals by conducting sweeps in popular homeless havens, confiscating personal property, and issuing tickets. A recent study from the LA Times showed a 31 percent increase in homeless arrests for minor crimes, with the most common charge being a failure to appear for court. More often than not, these individuals are jailed until they serve their time, building up their criminal record simply for being homeless.

Driven to lower this trend of criminalizing homelessness, attorney and UCI alum Brooke Weitzman embarked on a new mission to provide legal services for homeless individuals. Weitzman is the co-founder of Elder Law and Disability Rights (ELDR) Center, a non-profit organization that assists seniors and people with disabilities by offering legal services. ELDR’s website on county injunctions reported that 33 of Orange County’s 34 cities have “anti-camping” ordinances that criminalize the act of sleeping in public spaces, forcing homeless individuals to move to the Santa Ana River banks.

Recently, Weitzman opened three new pro bono ticket clinics specifically for homeless individuals. These pro bono clinics provide legal counseling and attorney services at no charge. When they accept a case, the attorney contacts the court prosecutor to discuss the charges against their client. They may either dismiss the case on the condition that the attorney can verify that their client is currently being sheltered, or they can refuse to dismiss the charges and proceed to trial. Weitzman stated that oftentimes, a case can last from a few weeks to over a year, taking into account whether or not the client was jailed before they opened the litigation case. She also noted that in most of her cases, homeless people are jailed because they fail to appear in court. Charges for this crime can go up to or more than $300. Weitzman found that in some cities, like Anaheim, police will make an arrest before the court has issued an arrest warrant, opting to write it once they have the person in custody.

In 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a letter to state and local criminal courts regarding their unpaid penalties. Now, court systems must confirm whether or not someone has the financial ability to pay a fine before punishing them. This will hopefully provide an alternative for jail time as the DOJ believes that all levels of American government must operate with the law and provide fair procedures.

The search for housing is one of the main challenges that homeless individuals face after being charged with a few misdemeanors. Weitzman stated that future landlords frequently discriminate against homeless people with misdemeanors, despite the crimes being non-violent. This can be credited to the overlying stigma surrounding homelessness. Weitzman also stated that most homeless individuals, like veterans, do receive funding from the government for housing, yet are still unable to find a landlord willing to accept them. She expressed disapproval over the county’s idle response to housing discrimination against homeless individuals.

Weitzman has dedicated her career to helping the homelessness initiative fight the injustice of housing and food insecurity. “I’m driven by the idea of justice. One of the most obvious injustices is people who can’t access a place to sleep or something to eat. It [housing] is something that we should be able to provide for the people who live here, ” says Weitzman.  

Weitzman aims to reduce the percentage of insecurity through both her pro bono ticket clinics and through her base of operations at ELDR. However, Weitzman also hopes that she can expand her pro bono clinic program by adding more locations in an effort to increase accessibility.

The Elder Law and Disability Rights (ELDR) Center is a non-profit organization that assists seniors and people with disabilities by offering legal services. Photo taken by Robert Thornson.

There are currently three clinics across Orange County: Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Laguna Beach. Weitzman has worked to open temporary clinics located in California’s San Clemente and Dana Point, but funding has been limited, decreasing the opportunities for homeless individuals in the area. With enough recognition and donations, these pro bono ticket clinics could alter the game for charges against homelessness.

As of 2017, the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that in California alone, there are as many as as 134,278 homeless people on any given night, and as many as 34.2 homeless per 10,000 people in the general population.  Unsurprisingly, they account for 24 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. In Orange County alone, the Manager’s Office released a statement that there was a 7.6 percent increase in homelessness within the last two years. “The cost of housing is rising yet minimum wage isn’t,” Weitzman said, “There are many homeless families who aren’t counted in statistics because they’re terrified that their kids would be taken from them. We saw it in Anaheim where they opened a family shelter, and the city was shocked at how many families showed up.” Weitzman said other similar scenarios occurred in San Diego and Santa Ana.

Weitzman’s past experiences volunteering in shelters and programs has instilled in her the hope to open more clinics in cities like Santa Ana, Tustin, Costa Mesa, Buena Park, and Placentia. Possible challenges that could hinder the clinic’s expansion fall on lack of substantial funding. ELDR recently began to host fundraising events to boost donations and plans to explore other methods to increase funding.

With the help of the community, these pro bono ticket clinics can greatly impact the lives of homeless individuals, creating a better, safer environment for many of those who live in fear of being recognized as homeless.

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