The Homeless Court Movement

By Kristen Bolster, PBI Intern

On any given night there are roughly 580,500 people experiencing homelessness in the United States (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). People who experience homelessness may be penalized and charged with civil offenses for trespassing, and receive fines and fees for actions including living in a vehicle, blocking the sidewalk, and smoking, urinating, drinking or sleeping in public. These acts can be categorized as ‘public nuisance offenses,’ which many people experiencing homelessness oftentimes have little option but to commit. Nonpayment of fines and fees can lead to collection agencies getting involved and tacking on hundreds of dollars to what is already owed. The inability to afford transportation can further compound the difficulties of homelessness by leading to missed court dates and default warrants. These penalties are piled on to already existing legal and societal barriers that the homeless face when trying to find a place to live, gain employment, receive public assistance, or get or reinstate a driver’s license.

Some jurisdictions are examining policies that deepen the cycle of homelessness and have begun to treat people experiencing homelessness with compassion and understanding, instead of hostility and contempt. The American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness & Poverty seeks to decriminalize homelessness by establishing homeless courts, where homeless defendants can receive legal aid that helps to break down the barriers that homeless individuals face when trying to create stability and maintain self-sufficiency in their lives. The ABA’s Commission and its Homeless Court Advisory Committee aid in the work of homeless courts by developing resources and best practices that courts can follow, offering training and technical assistance, and facilitating the creation of new homeless courts throughout the country. So far, the ABA has helped to establish roughly 70 homeless court programs operating across 21 states.

How Homeless Courts Work

While each homeless court is different, all of the courts rely on collaboration with local homeless service agencies and homeless shelters. Resorting to homeless courts is voluntary, and accessibility is emphasized to facilitate their use. (Generally, homeless people are able to sign up at their local shelter.) The courts focus is on resolving common legal issues, such as outstanding misdemeanor offenses, traffic citations and warrants. After signing up, case workers meet withprospective participants to discuss the legal barriers that they face and to create a plan for a more stable future.

The sentencing structure of homeless courts is designed to help assist those experiencing homelessness reintegrate into society.  It does this by stripping away punitive and coercive measures that traditional courts often utilize. In traditional court, municipal code violations typically are addressed with a fine that can be settled through ‘credit’ that is earned by spending days in custody. For example, traditional San Diego courts offer a “$50 credit” for each day spent in custody, so a $300 fine could be settled by spending 6 days in custody. Homeless courts have worked to improve upon this model by offering “credit for time served” for participants who complete activities offered through their shelter programs. According to the ABA, activities like life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer and literacy classes, training or searching for employment, medical care, counseling, and volunteer work may be used as credit depending on the housing court.

Potential homeless court participants typically have the opportunity to begin these activities within the shelter or agency before they see a judge at homeless court. Oftentimes, individuals are able to accumulate enough credit by the time of their hearing date to satisfy the penalty associated with the alleged committed violation(s). Further, by ensuring that homeless court participants are already on the path to success by the time of their hearing, fewer hearings are required and less time is spent in the court, thereby reducing court costs.

The Impact of Homeless Courts

The following example showcases how homeless courts work with communities to reduce homelessness and give participants the tools they need to create stability in their lives.

San Diego

San Diego is home to the oldest rotating homeless court in the country and has continued to be a leader in the homeless court movement. The homeless court began in 1989 as part of a Stand Down event hosted by the Veterans Village of San Diego. In that very first homeless court session, 116 homeless veterans said that their biggest barrier to stability was outstanding legal issues. The Homeless Court Program (HCP) began as an annual event. However, because of need, the program turned to a quarterly schedule, and today the HCP runs on a monthly basis.

The impact of San Diego’s HCP has been tremendous. Even when the program was only running annually (circa 1989-1992) the HCP was able to help 942 homeless veterans resolve 4,895 cases. Today the court has expanded to helping all individuals experiencing homelessness and has helped over 10,000 participants. Many of the cases brought to homeless court involve collection of fees that most HCP participants would never be able to pay back. For example, in 2018, San Diego’s HCP was able to satisfy $2,038,100 in fines and fees spread over 3,272 cases through alternative sentencing. The total number of cases that the HCP processed in 2018 was 4,226, split between 720 clients.

San Diego’s Homeless Court Program has been streamlined, so that, when a participant goes before a judge, the resolution of their case has already been agreed upon and the hearing is mainly a formality. Those who would like to participate in the homeless court program are first paired up with an HCP provider who will refer them to the homeless court program only if they have completed the program’s requirements, which include “credit for time served” activities. This way the “sentence” that the participant receives is already completed prior to the time they will appear in court.

Many other homeless courts have modeled themselves off of the evolving practices of the HCP in San Diego. The Commission on Homelessness and Poverty of the American Bar Association, along with San Diego’s HCP has curated the San Diego Service Provider Toolkit that documents how providers can best implement homeless courts in their communities. The San Diego HCP was also highlighted in the Homeless and Community Court Blueprint, a document that outlines best practices for an effective homeless court.

Pro Bono and Homelessness 

There are many avenues for pro bono attorneys to play a part in reducing homelessness. Homeless courts often rely on the volunteer efforts of pro bono lawyers. For example, the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz(Baker Donelson) has many attorneys who actively volunteer with the Homeless Experience Legal Protection (HELP)program. The HELP program offers legal clinics for the homeless where pro bono lawyers address legal obstacles preventing participants from finding housing, obtaining employment, or accessing public assistance. Baker Donelson was also a key player in the organization and implementation of the homeless court program located in New Orleans in 2010, and more recently a homeless court in Nashville in 2019. There are also other opportunities pro bono volunteers can work towards the prevention of homelessness. Along with their other efforts, Baker Donelson attorneys devoted nearly 500 pro bono hours of research contributing to the 2020 State Index on Youth Homelessness. The report, from the National Homelessness Law Center and True Colors United, evaluates all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness. By utilizing the Index, states can better allocate resources to prevent youth homelessness. PBI interviewed Jonathan Cole, a partner with Baker Donelson, on the firm’s pro bono efforts to reduce homelessness. Cole shared that “[i]t’s been very fruitful for our firm. I always just really enjoyed it, and it’s nice making a significant impact on a big issue like that, that’s present in all our cities that we have offices.” To access the interview, click here.

The firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (Nelson Mullins) has helped to create multiple homeless courts throughout South Carolina. The first designated homeless court in the State started in Columbia, SC in 2015 and came about through a collaboration between Nelson Mullins, dedicated judges, the Richland County Solicitor’s Office, the Richland County Public Defender’s Office, the South Carolina Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and several other nonprofits. Nelson Mullins has also been involved in the creation of homeless court programs in Myrtle Beach, Florence, and Spartanburg. Similarly to Baker Donelson, Nelson Mullins is active in the HELP program and was a part of the movement to set up the program in Columbia, contributing both funding and pro bono attorneys to support bi-monthly legal clinics aiding the homeless.

Helping the homeless with legal matters is not limited to law firms or jurisdictions that have active homeless courts. In 2020, the PBI recognized Amazon (in partnership with K&L Gates LLP) for providing services to Mary’s Place, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that provides safe, inclusive shelters and services to support women, children, and families on their journey out of homelessness. Lawyers from Amazon and K&L Gates provide legal advice to Mary’s Place staff on corporate matters, in addition to guests at Mary’s Place shelters during legal clinics. Further, in 2020, Amazon provided space within one of its buildings to a new Mary’s Place family. Pro bono volunteers from Amazon’s Legal Department are able to meet with Mary’s Place guests in a legal office that will serve as a permanent clinic within the shelter.

There are many ways for firms and corporations to help end the cycle of homelessness, whether it’s pro bono assistanceinvolving changing laws that criminalize homelessness, researching ways that states can better aid their homeless population, participating in clinics, or establishing homeless courts. The American Bar Association encourages new attorneys who are interested in becoming involved with homeless courts to learn more about the Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, join the ABA’s Advisory Committee, or to take advantage of free technical assistance training provided by the Commission to start a homeless court program in their community.


With homelessness anticipated to skyrocket, it is imperative now more than ever that law firms and corporations involve their pro bono volunteers and choose a path to address homelessness in their communities.  Many people have been unable to work due to the pandemic, making it impossible for them to pay their rent or mortgage fees, and creating a grave threat of eviction and possibly homelessness.

To combat this and decrease the spread of COVID-19, the federal government announced a temporary moratorium on evictions for missed rent payments. Roughly 6.5 million renters are currently behind on rent or mortgage payments, and it is expected that the end of the moratorium  will result in a tsunami of evictions and foreclosures.

Homeless courts present one option for dealing with the current crisis in a constructive manner that benefits many.