Monday, January 31, 2011

Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights ends program

A controversial program that provided high-powered legal representation for homeless people in traffic court has been discontinued.

Lateefah Simon, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, says the Homeless Rights Project was primarily a victim of funding shortages, but it's also drawn plenty of scrutiny from this column and the organization's board of directors.

The good news is this could actually lead to more productive ways to help the homeless. The city has been stuck in the old circular arguments for too many years. Homeless advocates claim their clients are being arrested simply for the crime of being homeless, and police and city officials gripe that there are no consequences for what is clearly bad behavior.

It is time to move on to something that works.

The Homeless Rights Project was created when the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights joined forces with the Coalition on Homelessness. The coalition offices served as an intake center for the homeless to drop off their citations, be interviewed and leave. The citations were then given to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. An LCCR staff attorney or pro bono attorneys from some of the city's largest law firms would typically get the citations dismissed and the defendants would rarely even need to make a court appearance.

The idea touted by the law firms was that the work was helping the homeless from being persecuted for their circumstances. But the reality was that court records show over the past two years, more than half of those citations were alcohol-related, and had nothing to do with camping on the streets.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director for the coalition, often says that if the police cite offenders, it prevents them from getting housing. That's why large local law firms send their pro bono attorneys into traffic court to battle the citations tooth and nail.

But representatives from the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (a Care Not Cash provider), and the city's Housing Authority all say they only prohibit tenants who have a record of violent crimes, sex offenders and those who sell or manufacture illegal substances.

Friedenbach's response to that is that none of those providers count. Care Not Cash, she wrote in an e-mail, is not "permanent" because "these units are leased, and at the end of the lease the actual owner (the landlord) can pull out if they feel like it."

Presumably, the alternative would be for the city to hand over ownership of a home to homeless individuals. This is a compassionate city, but that's not going to happen.

A better outcome would be to direct the pro bono attorneys - a compassionate and dedicated group - to causes that could help everyone. Work needs to be done in eviction cases, where poor tenants often face a landlord and his or her attorney without representation. The Community Justice Center, which works to get frequent offenders into services that can help them, needs attorneys to take the pressure off public defenders.

The Board of Directors for the Lawyers Committee made the right call. Facing a severe budget pinch, Simon says they elected to keep programs that have worked - like their Legal Services Clinic, which provides free legal aid for the poor and homeless - and stop funding 3,000 court appearances a year in traffic court, arguing the cases of defendants in what were mostly alcohol cases.

"I am saddened that we couldn't continue the project, but we weren't able to take it all on," she said. "I know they are still pushing to make something happen with others. But will we be able to do it? No."

Friedenbach says "pretty much every major law firm in the city has been in on plans for a revitalized structure" for the program. That may be. And maybe another version will surface.

But this one didn't work.

By C.W. Nevius',


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