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Salt Lake’s homeless have hard time getting to court, so court’s coming to them

Initiative is part of broader push to bring services to encampments before sweeps take place

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Marcella Lovell, left, attends Salt Lake County Justice Court with judicial assistants Pauline Koranicki and Jennifer Medrano and Judge Jeanne Robison at the Cornell Street tent city in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Lovell, 67, lives in her camper at the tent city.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When a patrol car rolled by a growing encampment on Salt Lake City’s west side earlier this week, Marcella Lovell held her breath.

Lovell, 66, knew police could arrest her on warrants after she failed to appear in court on misdemeanor charges like trespassing. But a series of panic attacks and her fear of contracting COVID-19 kept her from showing up to Salt Lake City’s municipal courthouse.

“I’d make appointments, but I never went,” said Lovell, who’s been diagnosed with anxiety and is staying at the Cornell Street camp in an RV parked near an abandoned motel. “My heart starts beating fast, and I get ready to go to the door, and I just don’t go.”

This week, the court came to her.

From under a pop-up tent, Judge Jeanne Robison handed Lovell a phone with a defense attorney on the other line, recalled a warrant and scheduled new court hearings that Lovell can attend remotely.

Salt Lake City has long allowed defendants who don’t have a place of their own to answer charges and citations by meeting with a judge at the Weigand Homeless Resource Center.

Now the court is setting up right at homeless encampments for two days at a time, with a judge, two judicial assistants and a plainclothes constable at the tent. Wednesday’s was the third session since October, and the city is planning to hold them more frequently, about once a month at a different locations each time.

They’re holding court on the same days that housing and health care advocates are also setting up tents. It’s part of a broader push to bring resources to these temporary camps before large-scale cleanups disrupt the lives of those staying there, similar to other efforts in bigger cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The roving court is a recognition that it can be hard for those without stable housing to make sure they keep up with court dates, advocates say. The charges they face are often tied to their situation, including camping on public property, staying in a park after closing and having an open container of alcohol in public.

Simply sitting down at the tent can go a long way. Those who obtain low-income housing vouchers must still pass a background check in order to move into most apartments, and the open warrants often pop up as part of the searches, said Michelle Hoon, a project and policy manager with the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Development division.

“It’s a situation that’s going to prolong someone’s homelessness,” Hoon said.

Case managers will eventually find a place for everyone, Hoon said, but open warrants typically prolong the search.

“With limited shelter space, it’s not really something that we can afford,” she said. “We’ve got to get people out of those shelters and into housing quickly so more people can come in.”

In tent court, defendants sit at a distance, with sanitizing wipes at a table. Everyone wears masks.

Many fear they’ll be arrested by the constable at the visiting court, but they’ll only be placed in handcuffs if they’re facing serious charges that indicate they’re a public safety threat, according to Robison.

“Part of it is really trust,” the judge said. “We want them to feel safe coming to us.”

With a defense attorney and prosecutor tuning in by video, and a district judge sometimes logging in to handle more severe charges, the roving court has recalled warrants for more than 150 people so far.

Some have resolved their cases altogether, with Robison sentencing them to sign up for a handful of services at other tents. Others, like Lovell, simply get a new date to make their case.

“I’m so glad to,” Lovell said. “I have an explanation for every one of them.”

The temporary court has also drawn those who don’t live at the encampments but have heard about the opportunity to attend court. It’s also led them to other booths, too, including one operated by the Fourth Street Clinic that provides COVID-19 testing and another that can help people get into available spots in shelters.

On Tuesday, for example, one person was shaking others’ tents saying, “Get up! They’re clearing people’s warrants!”

“What can be tough is that this is not an answer for where’s everybody going to go,” Hoon said. “But what this can do is it can put really good resources in front of people.”