Tuesday, November 26, 2002
By PERCY EDNALINO, Californian staff writer
Word-of-mouth has been a good thing for Walter Williams and other homeless advocates.
On Wednesday, the Kern County Superior Court holds its second homeless court session at the Bakersfield Homeless Center on East Truxtun Avenue.
The court allows homeless people to clear nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, such as trespassing or driving on a suspended license, from their records and is based on a similar platform used in San Diego. Homeless advocates have said these offenses usually start out as insignificant, but frequently pile up and prevent homeless individuals from obtaining medical care, housing or employment.
Williams works with Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance and is one of the homeless court's coordinators. He said the biggest difference between this session and the first one, which was held in August, is more people have agreed to participate.
The first time the court session was offered, only nine people participated, Williams said. This time, thanks to word of mouth, the number has grown to 53 people.
"The first time we did it, they (the homeless participants) thought it was a sting operation and that Kern County didn't have a heart or consideration for them," Williams said. "But this is a court pilot project. The courts have reached out to the community and they do have consideration for the homeless."
Williams said holding the second homeless court session a day before Thanksgiving is appropriate.
"Not only do you get some stuff wiped off your record, but you can move on after Thanksgiving and take care of things," he said. "It's a chance to get back into society."
Superior Court Judge H.A. "Skip" Staley presided over the last homeless court and said the plan is to offer the sessions on a quarterly basis. He also said homeless court participants aren't receiving special treatment from the court.
"They've done ... far more than we would ever expect for people coming down to the courthouse," he said.
Williams said the homeless court isn't intended to allow people to clear their offenses just so they can commit more misdemeanors.
"It's not a revolving door," he said. "It's one time only, unless we miss something that we didn't get the first time."
Eligible homeless court participants first must attend classes or programs and show court officials that they're serious about clearing their records.
The court's August session was considered successful, Williams said, because seven of the nine participants have managed to stay out of trouble and have found housing and jobs.
Two of the original nine participants also have been asked to be guest speakers at Wednesday's session.