Church social hall converts to courtroom to help homeless
By the Rev. Randy Smith*
Twice each year, a social hall in First United Methodist Church of Hayward, California becomes a courtroom.
The Alameda County Homeless and Caring Court Program is intended to address the legal barriers that can perpetuate homelessness. Fines for old traffic violations or open-container laws, or outstanding warrants for missing court appearances can often stand in the way of obtaining employment, housing, or a driver’s license. By dismissing accumulated fines and charges, people who would otherwise continue in the cycle of homelessness are able to move on with their lives.
Persons accepted into the program must have made significant progress toward getting their lives back on track. This may mean successfully completing a drug treatment program, enrolling in vocational classes, or obtaining help for mental illness. Homeless shelters and other service organizations work with the court to identify potential candidates.
As in other court sessions, a judge wearing the traditional black robe presides, the state seal and a pair of flags adorn the front of the room and a court reporter keeps a transcript of everything that is said. Attorneys are present for both the prosecution and the defense. This is court!
The atmosphere provided by being in a church is significantly friendlier than the often-intimidating experience of criminal court at a courthouse. There are no metal detectors or sheriff’s deputies with guns. The number of defendants is small, usually 15-20. The church provides drinks and snacks for all participants. As the court disposes of each case, the audience claps and cheers in support of the defendant who may be moved to give a hug to both the Public Defender and the District Attorney.
*The Rev. Smith is pastor of First United Methodist Church of Hayward, California.