Once a month, the First Parish meetinghouse in Cambridge — normally home to a Unitarian Universalist congregation — is briefly transformed: Spiritual iconography is swapped out for a pair of flags, a worship space is filled with a few rows of fold-out chairs, and the church becomes a makeshift courtroom.
The Cambridge Homeless Court convenes every first Monday of the month. The court has been in session just shy of two years now, with Cambridge District Court First Justice Roanne Sragow presiding over a docket of dozens of charges filed against defendants who are homeless, or who have been struggling with homelessness.
The crimes are mostly minor, ranging from trespassing for sleeping outside to open liquor violations to urinating in public.
Sragrow helped create the court, partially in order to accommodate homeless defendants after the Cambridge District Court was moved from Cambridge to Medford, miles away, presenting a uniquely difficult conundrum for defendants who were already homeless.
“Cambridge is home to a large population of people who are homeless, and a lot of those folks are frequent defendants in the Cambridge Court,” says Sragow. “People couldn’t get there. It was ridiculous.”
But beyond just the issue of accommodation was a more complex problem.
Sragow was seeing homeless defendants getting stuck in an endless cycle of penalties and punishment over mostly minor offenses — but which carry stiff monetary penalties and even potential jail time.
“It was like a revolving door,” says Sragow. “They'd come into court, it's a fineable offense, they can't pay a fine, they'd dismiss the offense, they'd be arrested a week later, we'd see them back.”
And Sragow didn’t see how the court system was making things any better for those defendants.
“These are people who have alcohol problems, drug problems, [and] clearly they're homeless so there are housing problems. Some of them might be veterans and in need of VA services they don't know about,” she says. “So I said, let’s get these people the help they need.”
Sragow reached out beyond the court system itself, assembling a kind of ad-hoc working of prosecutors, defense attorneys, local police, and service providers and advocates.
Before each session begins, Sragow sits down with this team and, together, they go through the day’s docket — reviewing each individual on it, assessing what is and isn’t known about that individual’s circumstances and challenges — and agreeing, in most cases, to outcomes that allow the defendants to get services they need and avoid severe penalties.
On a recent Monday, a packed room of defendants stood as Judge Sragow entered the room with the kind of greeting you are unlikely to hear in any normal criminal courtroom.
“Good morning!” Sragow said brightly.
“Good morning!” a chorus of defendants answered back, and court was in session.
Halfway through the session, the bailiff calls Tyrone Henderson, 63, to the stand.
Henderson, an African-American man who walks with a stoop, approaches the bench and stands as a prosecutor reads the charges against him.
The Cambridge Homeless Court is meant to be a welcoming environment — but it’s still a courtroom, and defendants face potentially serious consequences for the charges against them.
Most defendants are represented by Cambridge Attorney Michael Hicks, with assistance from Harvard Law School students who are members of Harvard Law’s “Street Justice Coalition,” a school association focused on advocacy for homeless defendants.
The prosecutor says Cambridge Police encountered Henderson last September, finding him intoxicated and yelling obscenities.
Henderson fell down, the prosecutor says, then intentionally kicked his legs out at his girlfriend, knocking her down, and attempted to kick a passerby.
“Is that what happened?” asks Sragow.
Henderson consults with his attorney briefly and then answers in a low voice, “Essentially.”
Henderson is a veteran — later, outside the court, he says he served overseas with NATO and has traveled overseas extensively.
“Istanbul Turkey, Germany, ... Greece. Yeah, I jumped out of a stupid helicopter once,” he says.
His hobbies, he says, are math and physics — he knows the speed of light by heart — and, he adds, “a little bit of aerodynamics: You really have to know a little something when you jump out of an aircraft."
His girlfriend, Donna, is with him for support. She has also been to homeless court.
“I got a summons for trespassing,” says Donna, who asked not to give her last name.
“When you’re homeless and you need to use the bathroom somewhere and you don’t have money to buy anything ... you’ll end up with a ticket.”
The Cambridge Homeless Court has been widely praised — and similar programs are popping up elsewhere — Boston has a homeless court too.
But there are more critical voices out there.
“On the one hand, I think they they can do some good. They can certainly do some good for individuals. But on the other hand, it's not really getting to the root of the problem,” says Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness.
Tars says communities are intentionally targeting the homeless — criminalizing homelessness itself — by making it a crime to sleep on the street, or panhandle, or by selectively enforcing petty laws
“Things like jaywalking, littering, you know you name it. ... Communities are using the criminal justice system to address the social service problem,” Tars says. “Our preference would be simply stop criminalizing that behavior in the first place.”
Back in the courtroom, Tyrone Henderson enters a guilty plea.
Sragow offers encouragement: “I’m very pleased to hear you’ve been in touch with the VA?”
“Yes, your honor,” Henderson replies.
“Good,” says Sragow — and then she releases him — no fine, no further penalty.
On his way out, Henderson stops and turns back to the judge
Your honor, may I do one thing? May I salute my flag?
“Absolutely,” the judge answers.
He faces the flag, straightens up, and salutes. Then walks out into a cool, clear spring day.