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Phoenix launches new court for unsheltered people

Phoenix thinks a new municipal court could help some people end their homelessness. The city has opened a community court for low-level offenders who are unsheltered. It’s modeled after similar courts for veterans and people with mental illness. The goal is to provide long-term solutions. 

Once someone has been arrested, the city prosecutor will determine eligibility based on the level of their crime and housing status. David Ward, who oversees  the public defender's office, said those who qualify will be sent to a special courtroom.

“There, they’ll have contact with the navigators, they’ll have contact with defense attorneys, they’ll also have contact with the Office of Homeless Solutions, whoever’s going to be able to help them navigation through whatever the issue is- whether it’s behavioral health, mental health or whatever that issue might be,” he said.

Phoenix’s community court might require someone to attend counseling, get a state ID, or apply for food stamps. Participants could also get help finding a job and reconnecting with friends or family.

As with the city’s veterans and behavioral health courts, the community court is voluntary.

“If you don't want to participate, you don't have to,” Ward said. “If you pretend you want to participate and then you don't participate, then you'll find yourself out of the court and back into a regular courtroom.”

Councilwoman Ann O’Brien advocated the court after visiting a similar court in Mesa, which reported a 7% recidivism rate.

“We have a responsibility to all our citizens to prosecute crime and to keep our streets clean and neighborhoods safe,” she said. “However, we also have a responsibility to provide the services needed to ensure people who want to can lift themselves out of homelessness.”

Last year, the city council approved more than $2 million to create the court, which included adding 11 full-time positions and hiring 10 navigators to work directly with unsheltered people.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.