Phoenix officials unveiled a new court last Friday, a community court designed to hear cases of homeless individuals who can face challenges such as finding lawyers, posting bail, and showing up for court. The court is modeled on two other specialty courts in Phoenix: Veterans Court and Behavioral Court.   At a court tour, Mayor Kate Gallego said the court is designed to offer a broad range of solutions to homeless individuals interacting with the criminal justice system.

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“We get that each individual has a unique story. There’s no one path to homelessness. We heard it this week at the Point in Time Count and hear it every day in our communities. For some individuals, it’s a medical bill that causes life to spiral out of control; for others, it may be facing an addiction. Each story is unique, and the Community Court recognizes that and puts caring individuals together with a person experiencing homelessness to find solutions,” said Mayor Kate Gallego.

The City’s goal is to end the cycle of homeless individuals in the judicial system for misdemeanor crimes related to unreliable shelter. The Community Court was a key part of Councilwoman Ann O’Brien’s Homeless Solutions Plan. The City of Phoenix City Council approved the Community Court on June 29, 2023. O’Brien is the chair of the Public Safety Subcommittee for the City.

The Community Court model began in the City of Mesa in 2018 and builds a team of advocates for homeless offenders, including prosecutors, navigators, and public defenders.

In a news release from Council District 1, Councilwoman O’Brien said, ​”Community Courts is a proven model in other municipalities that show when homeless individuals commit low-level crimes as a result of their conditions, there are positive outcomes.”

Eligibility for Community Court is only open to homeless individuals charged with non-violent misdemeanors. The criminal charges must also connect to an individual’s lack of access to reliable shelter. A criminal history or charges of violent felonies and sex offenses disqualify eligibility. Participation in the court is entirely voluntary.

There are currently seven navigators working with the Community Court. Navigators are experienced Behavioral Health Technicians, caseworkers, and peer support specialists from Community Bridges, Inc. (CBI). Navigators also provide transportation to get documents: IDs, social security cards, and birth certificates. These are necessary to connect them to housing resources as well as disability verification letters and homeless verification letters, according to Ollie Nyman, Associate Director of Housing and Community Integration for Community Bridges Inc.

Nyman began at Community Bridges Inc. in the detox and inpatient facility and continues to connect clients with primary care doctors and general mental health services. Nyman said as fentanyl addiction rises, these services become “especially important.” Navigators also help clients find employment through connections with Workforce Development or Saint Joseph the Worker.

“All of those resources are available to the navigators. I was actually looking at one of their binders today, and it looks like an encyclopedia now; it has so many resources in there, so I am very proud of them for really making those connections, and all of the caseworkers really bring something different to the table,” said Nyman.

The Community Court has one dedicated public defender, according to David Ward, the Director of the Public Defender’s Office. He said those working in the new court should have “life experience and court experience, so they understand that this is different than a regular court, but they know when it’s time to apply the rules of a regular courtroom, so I would say life experience and then legal experience has been very useful,” said David Ward, Director of the Public Defender’s office. The Specialty Courts are made up of a team of three attorneys.

Community Court cases differ from traditional court cases as plans develop from the onset, whereas traditionally, a plan is developed after a client makes a plea. Clients are active in their plans and meeting goals while their case proceeds, according to Esmeralda Gaxiola, Attorney for Community Court.

Community Court began hearing cases on Jan. 9. Gaxiola has seen around 20-30 cases, and new cases start each week.

“I think from what we’ve seen in this short period of time, where we’ve been able to obtain housing for some clients and clients are already working the program getting IDs, getting connected with services, I think long-term the impact is going to be great,” said Gaxiola.

Gaxiola said that taking a service-based approach to public defense has been rewarding to help someone day to day instead of essentially signing someone up for prison and seeing your direct impact daily where traditionally you wouldn’t see the impact.

“This approach is a lot more positive, and you can see how you’re directly having an impact in someone’s life if they’re homeless and then the next court date they have housing or CBI’s driving them to housing that day. I think you see that impact right away, and I think that’s really rewarding,” she said.

Sources Contact:

Mayor Kate Gallego:

Ollie Nyman, Associate Director of Housing and Community Integration:

David Ward, Director of the Public Defender’s office: 602-262-1838

Esmeralda Gaxiola, dedicated Attorney for City of Phoenix Community Court: 602-262-1838