Where you go when you have court fines and are all but homeless

By Brian Rinker, Aug. 23, 2015, Arizona Republic. A1. 

Margaret Sommer can transform a classroom at the city’s homeless shelter into a court of law in fewer than five minutes.

All she needs to do is push the tables against the wall, arrange the chairs in a u-shape and pull a judge’s bench and two flagpoles out from against the wall. Then slide a single table and two chairs into the middle of the room, a few feet from the bench.

A microphone is placed on the corner of the table. The cord runs along the floor, kept in place with blue tape, and connects to a web cam.

And with that, homeless court is ready to begin.

Sommer wears many hats as the only full-time employee at homeless court, which helps people clear up old court fines in an exchange for community service hours and a promise to reform.

Homeless court happens every third Tuesday of the month near downtown Phoenix at the Human Services Campus, a mix-match of public and private services for homeless people. The campus resembles a gigantic homeless camp, and court is held there for reason. It’s convenient and less intimidating than regular court. No metal detector. No law enforcement. No fear of arrest.

But getting into homeless court isn’t as simple as just being homeless. Actually, a defendant — here, they call them “clients” — can’t be homeless at all. He or she must already be working with a service provider, in transitional housing, actively looking for job, clear of felonies for the last 10 years, and has already completed some community service hours.

“It sounds silly,” Sommer said, “but you can’t just walk off the street and go to homeless court.”

On a Tuesday in July, Sommer sits behind the bench checking in with the eight clients who’ve come today to finally make square their lingering court fines — debt that has followed many of them around for years, trapping them in cycle of fines, suspended licenses, warrants, jail and more fines.

Next to Sommer is Judge Cynthia Certa, who is this month’s presiding judge.

Every month a different judge from one of the cities in Maricopa County volunteers to preside at homeless court. The web cam lets Judge Kevin Kane, who oversees homeless court, watch from his chambers in the Phoenix Municipal Courthouse.

Certa, from Phoenix municipal court, wears pink-rimmed glasses and a pearl necklace draped over her black robe.

At 1:30 p.m., without any ceremony, homeless court begins.

The judge speaks clearly and with a smile, telling those at court she did a little math before she got here. And it appears, looking over the docket, that together they have done more than 3000 hours of community service and satisfied nearly $13,000 in court fines.

“I didn’t meet each of you individually but overall I’d like to say: Well done,” Certa says.

In between cases, no one talks. Chairs creak. The judge shuffles papers. Some people fidget in their seats, others slide their shoes back and forth on the floor or tap their toes.

One guy with sunglasses on the back of his head and faded tattoos on his legs and arms scratches his neck. A woman in the corner fans herself with today’s docket and sips on a big blue 44-ounce polar mug from Circle K.

The judge calls Kurt Firestone.

Firestone stands up, walks a few steps in his tan ostrich cowboy boots over to the table and takes a seat next his case worker Erik Burns of the Phoenix Rescue Mission. Firestone has a bushy red goatee and eyes that stare right through you.

“Mr. Burns, what can you tell me about Mr. Kurt Firestone?” asks the judge.

“I’ve watched him over a period of time surrender his life to Jesus,” Burns says. “I’ve watch God do amazing work in his life.”

Firestone arrived at the rescue mission eight months ago after 15 years of homelessness, most of which he said was spent living in the dirt behind a drug store on 83rd Avenue and Thomas Road. Firestone said he always had trouble keeping a job, but it was wasn’t until he started smoking meth that his life became unbearable.

For seven years he smoked meth, and then one day, Firestone hit rock bottom.

“I was sick and tired of the world. Doing drugs didn’t really get me high anymore. I was just all hurt and stuff,” Firestone said. “Didn’t see any reason to live.”

Firestone said he nearly ended it all one night as he stood on the ledge of an overpass. He dangled a foot over the edge about to jump when a police officer rolled up and arrested Firestone on an old warrant. Firestone said that officer saved his life.

At 31, Firestone got sober. He moved into mission’s men’s residential drug treatment facility on South 35th Avenue and surrendered to God. The rescue mission also provides meals, shelter, job training and religious teachings. Firestone’s been there eight months reading the Bible and learning how to live.

Firestone learned about homeless court from his older brother, Robert.

He cleared up $222 in traffic fines — a small amount, but when you’re homeless and jobless, it might as well be $2 million.

But the best part about sitting in homeless court, for him, was listening to his case worker tell the judge about how he’d surrendered his life to Jesus. Firestone said that was one of the most amazing moments of his life.

“Mr. Firestone,” Judge Certa says before handing him a homeless court graduation certificate, “I see that you are in this program with your brother and that you support each other.”

Robert Firestone, Kurt’s older brother, has been living at the Rescue Mission for six months. The brothers even work together in the kitchen.

“He’s the cook and I’m the cleanup guy,” Kurt Firestone tells the judge.

Erik Burns stays seated as the brothers swap places. Burns tells the judge that Robert Firestone has also surrendered to Jesus.

Robert Firestone runs the kitchen night crew at the rescue mission for five hours a day six days a week for six months.

“What’s your specialty?” asks the judge.

“When we have them: noodles and chicken,” he says and laughs. “It’s just whatever we get.”

Every day Robert Firestone has to pick through donated food, most of which is a couple days past expiration, and figure out what to cook for hundreds of people for dinner.

“They eat pretty good,” he admits.

Robert moved into the shelter a couple months after his younger brother Kurt did. At 35, Robert had spent the last 17 years using meth. In that time he earned a long rap sheet of drug-related crimes. He’s been to state prison twice.

Kurt grew up watching meth tear apart his older brother. They never had a chance to bond. Until now.

Six months in, and sober, Robert’s finally getting that second chance to know his little brother — and act like a big brother. Their bunks are close by, across the aisle. They even have the same Duck Dynasty calendar hanging next to their beds.

Robert Firestone first heard about homeless court from another client at the shelter. He had nearly $4,000 in fines that had been following him around for years. It took two trips to homeless court before he was able to work off all the fines.

Today he graduates. Fine-free. The judge shakes his hand and everyone claps. The Firestone brothers stand up and walk out of court.

Lee Redding walks to the bus stop on Van Buren Street and 18th Street. He has to take a series of buses to get to a pharmacy to fill his 12 prescriptions.Redding, 57, came to wipe clean nearly $1,000 in traffic fines — some go back to 1996. Over the years, the fines added up and he couldn’t afford the payments. Then the state suspended his license. Brian Rinker/The Republic
Lee Redding walks to the bus stop on Van Buren Street and 18th Street. He has to take a series of buses to get to a pharmacy to fill his 12 prescriptions.Redding, 57, came to wipe clean nearly $1,000 in traffic fines — some go back to 1996. Over the years, the fines added up and he couldn’t afford the payments. Then the state suspended his license. Brian Rinker/The Republic

By 2 p.m., Judge Certa has cleared two thirds of the docket. The courtroom is sparse. Up next is Lee Redding, a 57-year-old man who came to wipe clean nearly $1,000 in traffic fines—some go back to 1996. Over the years, the fines added up and he couldn’t afford the payments. Then the state suspended his license.

For most of his adult life, Redding said, he abused alcohol, cocaine and meth. Things didn’t get bad right away. Redding says it was more like a slow boil. His marriage fell apart and Redding bounced around, sleeping on friends’ couches and in backyards.

In 2013, Redding said he was selling health memberships online and attending Rio Salado College, an online school, when he was diagnosed with a kidney disease.

Seemingly out of nowhere, his lower body began to swell with fluids, causing excruciating pain. He couldn’t fit into his shoes and pants.

With a dozen prescriptions, Redding was able to control the disease for the most part. Still, flare ups made working a stable job difficult. He moved into St Vincent de Paul’s dorm for people with disabilities last year. He has a bed, a chest and part of a closet. He has a large zip-up plastic bag full of prescription bottles. His bed is right across from the bathroom, where the toilet is held up by a car jack. Curtains separate each bed.

During his time at St. Vincent de Paul, Redding has been applying for disability benefits — he says he’s been denied twice so far — and attending counseling sessions for finances and substance abuse. A big part of his recovery is taking care of his medical issues.

Settling his court fines would allow him to get his driver’s license back. Then he could drive to the doctors or look for work. In Arizona, having outstanding court fines automatically suspends a person’s license.

His case worker told him about homeless court. Redding worked off his fines serving lunch to the other clients.

In homeless court, Redding tells the judge he wants spend his life helping others like St. Vincent de Paul helped him.

“My own father was a volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul so I share admiration for the program,” the judge tells Redding. “You have not only overcome your physical challenges but you’ve reached out to other people to give them a hand up. That speaks volumes about your character.”

At 2:15 p.m., homeless court is over. The judge, defendants and case workers are all gone. The live-streaming web cam shut down. Sommer tidies up. She puts the tables and chairs back where she found them and pushes the bench and flagpoles back against the wall and out of the way.

She pauses for a moment and says: “That’s what we call a problem solving court.”