Attorney Steve Binder recalls being in kindergarten in Flint, Michigan, and he and other children were sometimes asked what they would like to be when they grew up. “We all replied doctor or lawyer or teacher. None of us responded ‘I want to be homeless and be a substance abuser.'”
And yet homeless populations are in every major city — and many are veterans. In San Diego alone, the latest count for homelessness is over 9,000, 30 percent of whom are veterans.
Binder, a retiring deputy public defender, has just been named a Community Hero for his creation of a Homeless Court Program in 1989. The honor is given by KPBS and the National Conflict Resolution Center. He first became involved in Stand Down, a yearly fair held on the grounds of San Diego High School where veterans are invited to come for rest, relaxation, and services. It was there he realized the need for a Homeless Court Program (HCP).
In a survey presented by Dr. Jon Nachison and Robert Van Keuren, founders of Stand Down, many homeless veterans (116 of 500) had a number of violations and citations — sleeping on the sidewalk, loitering, and other misdemeanors — which kept them from being able to move forward with employment. For example, a homeless person can be issued a citation for being a public nuisance for sleeping on the sidewalk, fined $500 and given six months in custody.
“Law enforcement cannot handle homelessness,” said Binder. “And we trivialize them to ask that they attempt to do so.
“Part of what we do in the homeless court is that we set aside guilt and innocence, and reconcile the accomplishments participants made against the conduct of the offence, addressing the underlying cause of homelessness. Our focus is to reclaim lives.
“We could clearly see a need to help vets with what seemed an insurmountable problem.”
The homeless veterans must work through a social service agency, he says, and have a referral to the court. They must show progress towards self-sufficiency.
At the court their fines and jail time can then be removed, and instead they attend counseling or educational programs that support what they need to re-enter society in a contributing manner. The HCP replaces threat of fines and custody with proof of accomplishment in program activities that include counseling, employment training, medical treatment, substance abuse/drug programs and other activities that move their lives forward.”
The homeless court is open to all people who are homeless, not only veterans.
On Thursday, March 22, KPBS held a reception to honor Binder and bring together those concerned with homelessness.
Binder was nominated by San Diego social worker and friend Dawn Tol. “After I heard about the call for nominations I knew I had to nominate Steve,” she said. He saw a need and had the vision to address the need. It took great initiative to create the program that now supports the ability of our homeless neighbors to address the challenges of their lives.”
Andrew Bowen, Metro Reporter for KPBS conducted an interview of Binder at the reception.
“We understand that being mired in the criminal justice system is an impediment to reclaiming your life and being lawful,” said Binder during the interview.
The American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and poverty has called San Diego’s Homeless Court Program “a venue in which the homeless can resolve misdemeanor criminal cases without fear of facing large fines or being taken into custody.”
These Homeless Court Programs are presided over by various judges, and are held at yearly Stand Down events, and also at Veterans Village of San Diego and Father Joe’s Village. It recognizes homelessness as a multi-pronged social problem and not a criminal justice problem.
“Now there are 70 homeless courts nationally,” said Binder.
“Hitting homeless people with convictions and adding to their burdens is counterproductive to our intent to build public safety,” said Binder. “We need to know the circumstances of each person in order to re-integrate them back into the community.”
Binder has had former homeless vets come up to him and say he saved their lives.
From, “Now I can get my license!” to ‘You helped me and also my wife, my children, my parents. Now I have a good job and even make a six figure salary.”
It’s clear that the Homeless Court and Stand Down are helping these vets and others to re-enter society and to contribute and find their way.
Binder adds, “We want to say — ‘We have your back, and we want to leave nobody behind.’ We are all in this together.Now there is more hope for them to reach full potential.”
“I am so proud to call Steve my friend,” said Dawn Tol. “He is one of the rare people who have truly visionary ideals then sees them to fruition.”