The Orange County Community Court, where Dinsmoor is assigned, can help clients get some of what they lost back, like social benefits, stable jobs, housing, even custody of their children. After completing the individualized program, a client’s outstanding fines and fees issued by county police are dismissed. This court model has gained momentum over the last two decades, with hundreds of them in operation throughout the country. Many include a homeless outreach court among more standard dockets like: drug, DWI, Veterans, juvenile, and mental health. Each court branch has tailored programs based on participants’ needs.
By some estimates, about 900 people live in the Civic Center homeless community in Santa Ana. But there are several pockets of the city where homeless people also live that make the population hard to quantify. In 2015, 430 participants entered the OCCC homeless outreach court, with 254 completing the program by gaining employment, finding stable housing, and serving the required community service hours. Since its founding in 2003, over 2,700 individuals have had similar results.
But helping someone make their way back to a home is no easy task, and can take years in some cases. Dinsmoor is deeply committed to but also practical about the work and how she views her role. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Larisa Dinsmoor: My role is to not only represent my homeless clients but also to build a relationship with them and find out what’s really going on in their lives that is causing them to be homeless. Oftentimes, especially for women, living in their car it’s a safer option than actually being on the streets because you can obviously lock yourself in and be more protected. As long as you find places where you’re not ticketed, then you can have your own little mini house, so to speak. The problem is, as a lot of these places start getting ticketed by local police departments, tickets add up and create an insurmountable cycle of money that they owe that prevents them from actually being able to transition from out of their car into a more stable situation.
Lantigua-Williams: For the women who end up living in cars, is it often as a result of domestic violence?
Dinsmoor: Yes. I would say, anecdotally, we don’t have the statistics on it but, based upon my personal experience with clients that are female, a lot of it has to do with domestic violence or a negative relationship with a male.
Lantigua-Williams: How exactly does homeless court offer an alternative?
Dinsmoor: Our first step is to identify what led them to becoming homeless, to identify when were they not homeless, what were they doing then, what did that stable time look like. Then, we can work backwards to try and get them to that place. At one point, they had a home, but something destabilized them, so we work backwards. Oftentimes, what I have found is that the issues that are affecting our clients go deeper than that and extend to other matters. For example, child support. If there’s unresolved child support, then that will trigger a suspended license, will then trigger a number of other things.