Oahu’s new “homeless court” so far has cleared a backlog of 268 cases since it began in January and — perhaps more important — has gotten four homeless defendants housed, including a chronically homeless man who now has an apartment after nearly 30 years on the street.
The man did not want to be identified, according to his initial caseworker and the city Prosecutor’s Office. He had been tucked among the homeless on Diamond Head and later was living on the streets of Waikiki.
He faced 33 court cases for infractions, bench warrants and other nonviolent offenses dating back to 2005 and was selected for the new Community Outreach Court — as it’s officially called — where he pleaded no contest to one charge in February as part of a plea agreement.
District Judge Clarence Pacarro then sentenced him to four hours of community service at the Honolulu Zoo, which he completed March 4, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.
“This is a success story worth talking about,” Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said in a statement. “Not only were numerous cases and warrants cleared from the judiciary calendar, this gentleman was able to get into a home with the help of a non-profit working with Community Outreach Court.”
The new court is the brainchild of Kaneshiro, Oahu Public Defender Jack Tonaki and Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.
It originally was envisioned to rotate around the island to be closer to where homeless people congregate and where they could clean up their community for racking up sometimes dozens of violations, such as urinating in public, being in parks after hours, loitering and public intoxication.
The Community Outreach Court is now solely based in District Court on Alakea Street downtown. But the goal to expand it across the island is still being discussed.
In its last session the state Legislature agreed to fund $445,000 for each of the next two years to provide staff to focus specifically on the Community Outreach Court.
So far, 21 defendants — accounting for 268 cases — have appeared, including three who have gotten into transitional housing and the man who now has his first permanent home in nearly 30 years.
“I’m really excited about it,” said social worker Aashish Hemrajani, an outreach worker for the CHOW Project, which stands for Community Health Outreach Work, a nonprofit established in 1993 to curb drug overdoses and diseases related to syringes. Project workers meet with Community Outreach Court defendants in a witness room on the seventh floor of District Court.
“The aim is to get them connected with the services they need,” said Hemrajani.
Hemrajani worked with two of the four defendants who are now housed, including the man who lived on the slopes of Diamond Head and later Waikiki. He was placed into an apartment through the city’s Housing First program, Hemrajani said.
While the other three were put into temporary housing, Hemrajani said, his client got higher priority for permanent housing because of his long, troubled history of being on the street.
“He was chronically homeless pretty much his entire adult life and also has mental health issues and some substance abuse issues,” Hemrajani said.
His citations were the result of “the criminalization of being homeless,” Hemrajani said. “You can’t go to the bathroom without getting a ticket for public urination. He had been harassed by the police quite a bit. So it’s really great to connect him with services instead of penalizing him.”
Now, in his new apartment in an undisclosed location, “he’s really doing great,” Hemrajani said. “I was there to help him move in, and he’s really excited.”
Even though it’s new, the Community Outreach Court is showing great potential to clear outstanding court cases while getting criminal defendants into housing, Hemrajani said.
“They just need some help,” he said.