Once a year, the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers and The Stewpot downtown host “community court.” It’s an opportunity for homeless people to trade in tickets for community service, tickets issued for riding DART trains and buses without paying, for jaywalking — relatively minor offenses.
It’s 8 on a chilly Saturday morning, and dozens are already lined up outside.
Steve Seider, a justice of the peace in Dallas County, has volunteered for the past 17 years to help homeless people wipe their slates clean.
“It became obvious that there was an impediment to folks getting their IDs or driver's licenses with holds because of open tickets,” he said. “They couldn’t get services or access to jobs, so it started as a first step in hopefully a journey where folks are going to be able to clean up their record and move on down the road.”
Moving forward is exactly what 52-year-old Michael Walton wants to do. He says he’s got a few tickets for fare evasion on DART, and they weigh on him constantly.
“When you’re homeless, you worry about a whole lot: sleep, where you gonna eat the next day, how you gonna get here, how you gonna get there,” Walton said. “If you can get the tickets taken care of, it’s good thing. If the police stop you, you can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m clear.’ Makes you feel good. But if you got a ticket, you’re like, ‘Uh oh, don't take me to jail. I got tickets.’”
But even after community court, Walton and the others run the risk of racking up more tickets. They’ll hop on a train to see a doctor or get to a job, and they’ll get issued a citation for fare evasion. They’ll try to get the ticket sorted out, and get another ticket on the way. And that cycle continues.
Community courts like the one at The Stewpot have been helpful, but there are several other laws on the books that the homeless confront every day.
Cities in Texas and across the country have laws in place that penalize sleeping, loitering and begging in public. Cities and police say these laws are necessary for public health and safety; others say they unfairly target the homeless and actually keep them on the streets.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has been tracking these types of ordinances for the past 10 years across nearly 200 cities. Executive Director Maria Foscarinis says there’s been an increase.
Laws that penalize sleeping in cars have gone up 140 percent. Bans on sitting or lying down in public have increased by 52 percent. And bans on loitering? Up 88 percent. All of this amounts to what homeless advocates call the “criminalization of homelessness.”
“When we use that term, we refer to efforts to make it a crime to do things that are otherwise innocent, necessary human behaviors that people who are homeless have no choice but to do in public places,” Foscarinis said.
In Dallas, the police can stop you if you’re loitering or panhandling in certain public places at certain times. And it’s considered a crime to sleep or doze anywhere in public. But there aren’t enough emergency shelter beds across the city, and many homeless people feel they have no choice but to sleep or be outside.
According to municipal court data, Dallas police issued more than 11,000 sleeping-in-public citations from 2012-2015 — and 2,000 citations for panhandling in 2015 alone (a citywide "quality of life" initiative targeting aggressive panhandling launched the following year). These are $150-$300 tickets that often go unpaid and could lead to jail time. Foscarinis calls it a vicious cycle.
“Obviously, they exacerbate the pain and misery of living on the street, of being homeless, but they also make it harder to exit homelessness because they saddle people with a criminal record and then that makes it hard to get a job or housing or even public benefits,” she said.
These are tickets that even police will admit don’t make sense financially.
“Homelessness is not against the law,” Dave Hogan said. “And we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. It has to be done another way.”
Hogan heads the Crisis Intervention Unit with the Dallas Police Department. He says all those tickets over the past few years has cost the city a lot — in time, resources and manpower.
He’s a social worker and knows that policing the homeless from a place of empathy is often more effective. That means instead of whipping out the ticket book, encouraging and helping a homeless person get into a shelter or find needed services has become the “overriding policy” at Dallas Police.
“We really look at what is it going to take when you’re standing in front of somebody who is homeless, and they’re telling you the problem they have, what is it going to take to get that person out of homelessness?” he said.
For some, it’s better access to mental health resources. Foscarinis says for most, it’s a home.
“We can agree that having people live in public places is not a good thing. Where we disagree with cities is what do we do about it,” she said. “We feel that solving the problem through permanent affordable housing is the way to go.”
And that seems to be the position Dallas has taken in the past year since it shut down Tent City, the 300-person homeless camp under Interstate 45. This month, Dallas voters passed a $20 million bond that’ll go toward permanent and transitional housing for the homeless. That means good things for people like Michael Walton, who’s slept on trains or in private hideouts on the street for the past five years. He has some leads on an apartment.
“I don’t like nobody around me, no stealing from me, messing with me,” he said. “I just want to be quiet person in a quiet spot. So to get my own spot and my own place would make me feel much, much better.
That’s a chance for Walton to break the cycle, in which he gets the same tickets and comes back to the same community court every year because he has nowhere else to go.