I am an Assistant Public Defender. Any felony case that gets assigned to the courtroom of the judge I am under will either come to me or my courtroom partner. We handle those cases from start to finish.
I love working here because I did a bunch of internships with the public defender, and just always had a lot of fun. The work was meaningful and something I enjoyed doing. It is a natural thing that developed.
I meet a good percentage of clients that certainly don’t have stable housing or residence. Some live in the homeless encampments.
I also work on the mental health court in Hall County that is designed to work with people with criminal charges, but who also have mental health issues and possibly substance abuse issues.
The biggest frustration we have had since I have been a part of this team would be housing. There just aren’t enough resources in the community to meet the needs of the high risk individuals that we come across to be successful, whether in life or in a program. I think a cornerstone of that is having a stable place to live. If the housing isn’t stable for our participants they are not going to be doing so well in the program. It impacts all of the areas of their lives.
What is also frustrating is when people spend a long time in jail, and they lose an apartment or trailer that they were renting, or their family doesn’t want them to come back. We can’t keep this person in the county jail forever. Where can we transition these people to have the opportunity of being successful? Now there are a number of shelters like the Baptist Mission, Salvation Army and Good News at Noon, but those resources are filled with very quickly, and there is just simply not enough supply for all the demand.
On a bigger picture, I think the more resources you pump into low income housing is a way you reduce your jail population and reduce recidivism. People on probation while bouncing around from house to house with no fixed address means they start running into problems with reporting to their probation officers or meeting probation class requirements. Housing is a key part to someone being successful.
You can design the best program in the world that’s supposed to deal with a whole range of issues. You know, you can pump a whole bunch of money into it and find the best people to teach the classes to lead counseling sessions. But if you’re expecting people to continue to show up off the streets without providing housing that’s not going to happen. You can only keep people engaged in a given day for so long before they are going to leave the facility where your groups and classes are, but they aren’t living there. It’s easy for them to just do the right thing when they’re around counselors, treatment providers, and probation officers. It’s when they are away, alone, around people who have the same issues that the real struggle for them begins, because that’s when the support system isn’t in place. If someone doesn’t have a stable place to live, I think it is exponentially harder to be successful in whatever underlying issue has that got them involved in the criminal justice system in the first place.
I don’t think anyone in particular is out to get homeless people. But I think it is easier for homeless people to find themselves caught up in trouble. Homeless people have more interaction with police on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis than people living in their own home, a subdivision, or gated community. They’re in contact more with police. You combine repeated contact with law enforcement, and it’s just odds and percentages that one of those interactions will lead to an arrest. It’s not that they’re leading patrols or anything against them, it is just that they are in contact with them more.
It’s really frustrating to me that I live in a two bedroom apartment and some of my clients pay sometimes triple what I pay to live in a place I don’t think I would ever think about living in because of the condition. That is where their paycheck goes, and I don’t know how these landlords get away with it.
If there were more affordable housing, then things would be different.
Told By: Sara Jane Bowers
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Hall County, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.