ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Inside St. Martin’s Hospitality Center on Wednesday, a community room was decked out with just about everything you’d expect to see in a regular courtroom.
With the U.S. and New Mexico flags behind him, Metro Court Judge R. John Duran offers the kind of comment to a defendant you don’t always hear during a court hearing.
“It sounds like you’ve been through hell,” Duran said. “No one should have to go through that. It’s an awful existence.”
If you listen to the stories the defendants tell in Homeless Court, it’s hard to disagree.
Take Joseph Holmes, who graduated college in Oregon before his decisions led him down a road to homelessness.
“I got introduced to heroin… well, pills first, then heroin,” Holmes said. “Then life fell apart.”
He was referred to the program when his cases started stacking up.
“Five panhandling, one shoplifting and this was the best option,” Holmes said. “I couldn’t have kept track of six different court dates.”
Because Holmes’ charges are non-violent and he has no violent past, his cases where able to be sent down a different track. Defendants in the Homeless Court program get connected with services to help get them off the streets and back on track, working or otherwise contributing.
If they stick with it, their charges are dropped.
The program is primarily about changing lives and that gives hearings a very different feel. Defendants share stories of their road to homelessness and their attempts to turn things around.
“I listen to them, the judge listens to them, the prosecutor listens to them,” said Marcie Neville, an attorney who volunteers her time for the program. “We are a team.”
Neville says in 12 years volunteering she’s learned a lesson from seeing the wide variety of people who come through the program, including a doctor.
“We are all two steps away from being homeless, we really are,” Neville said.
The program recently got a boost from the city when councilors approved $190,000 in additional funding.
Judge Duran, who’s presided over Homeless Court for a little more than a year, says that money will go towards expanding the program and hiring staff to manage it. The hope is to have 20 defendants processed through Homeless Court.
“I really see this as the potential to be a model for the rest of the country as far as how we deal with the homeless situation,” Duran said.
Holmes says the program has helped him along with a new urgency to change his life.
“My mother just got done with her second bout of chemo, so that’s put a lot of mortality on life for me,” Holmes said. “I’m just thinking about how I don’t want to let leave with her seeing me like this.”