What if I can’t pay my tickets or fees and fines from criminal court?

We know that homeless people get charged with a lot of small crimes. Examples include loitering, panhandling, obstructing the sidewalk, trespassing, and littering. Very often, the penalty for these minor crimes is a fine—either a ticket or a fine imposed in court. The fine is supposed to be paid by a deadline.

If you don’t have the money to pay that fine and you miss the deadline, you can be charged with an additional crime which is usually called something like “failure to pay” or “contempt” in the local crimes code. This second charge might result in an additional fine or another kind of penalty such as community service or even jail time.

If the court system is able to communicate with you by phone or mail, which is not always possible when people do not have a permanent home, the payment office may contact you if you have had difficulty paying your fine. In that communication, they will likely tell you if it is possible to arrange a payment plan or an alternative to payment (such as attending a class or doing community service) if you cannot afford to pay. Being poor does not relieve you of criminal punishment; it just gives you an excuse for not paying the full fine by the original deadline. So if the court system tries to make arrangements with you, you are supposed to cooperate in forming a plan and fulfill your part of the arrangement. You may need to fill out forms or appear in-person for a conversation about your ability to pay.

You can ask for a payment plan or payment alternative as soon as your fine is assessed; you do not have to wait until they add a charge of non-payment and send you a second ticket. If you don’t give the court a way to contact you and you don’t reach out to the court before they come looking for you, these criminal charges will just stay on file until the next time you have an encounter with the police.

As these various charges and your lack of cooperation with the system mount up, so do the penalties that they can use against you. At some point, a police stop that might otherwise be uneventful will become a big deal because the officers will look you up and see that you have unresolved charges. They may take you to jail because of your outstanding charges.

 In March of 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a letter to state and local criminal courts regarding unpaid fines. The DOJ urged the court systems to confirm whether someone is financially able to pay a fine before punishing him for not paying it. It also called on the court systems to honor Constitutional due process rights. The letter spells out specific ways to honor due process: giving people notice before punishing them, giving them alternatives to payment, and not suspending their license or requiring expensive bond as the only ways of avoiding jail.

If your court system is not acknowledging your inability to pay criminal fines, your ACLU or the public defender’s office might take action on your behalf.

The ACLU published a report in 2010 about how people suffer increasing punishments after not being able to afford their court fines Subsequent to that report, state ACLU offices have produced helpful information tools for the public. Here are examples: Pennsylvania –  Washington–  ColoradoOhio .   Find your local ACLU affiliate to get instructions and other support if you cannot afford to pay a ticket or costs or fees assigned by a criminal court.

The National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) has a committee dedicated to the topic of Fines and Fees. http://www.publicdefenders.us/finesandfees Members of this committee have testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission about the terrible consequences that happen to people who do not have enough money to pay their criminal court fines. The Fines and Fees Committee welcomes input and offers resources to local public defenders. If you have a public defender who needs back-up to protect you from being jailed for not paying court fines, put that lawyer in touch with this group. You might like the NAPD’s Statement on Predatory Collection Practices. http://www.publicdefenders.us/files/NAPD_Statement_on_Predatory_Collection_Practices.pdf

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How can I get my mail when I’m always moving around?

There are mail forwarding business that provide transient people (often RV dwellers who are on the road rather than living in one RV community) with a street address.  The mail forwarding business will either scan the incoming mail envelopes and post them in a secure online private box for you to look at over the Internet or they will bundle the mail and physically ship it to you. Even though you get a street address through a mail service, you do not automatically get to claim that location as your legal residence. State laws about residency typically require you to be physically located in the state for a particular number of days each year. The list of mail forwarding services at the bottom of this page identifies two that will help you to register your vehicle and establish residence in their states.

Here is how the mail scanning services generally work: The company scans the envelopes that come for you. You go online and view the envelopes in your password protected online box and identify any that the service should open and scan. The service will then scan those documents straight into your confidential online box.

These services charge minimal flat rate fees, typically by the month or the quarter, to receive your mail. Depending on the company and the range of services you select, they may charge an additional per-page scanning fee for any documents that they take out of your envelopes. In other words, your flat rate can include just the envelope scanning or it can also include the document scanning as well. Of course, you do not have to register for the scanning service. If the mail service is in your city you can go there to get your physical mail every couple of weeks or once a month or on whatever schedule you establish with the mail forwarding service.

Examples of companies that provide mail forwarding and mail scanning services:

http://www.yourbestaddress.com/ (also provides vehicle registration services)

http://www.texashomebase.com/texasdomicileinfo.html (includes information about vehicle registration and establishing legal residency in Texas even if you are only there for part of each year)

https://travelingmailbox.com/

https://www.escapees.com/

https://www.earthclassmail.com/solutions
See the cities in which Earth Class provides street addresses https://www.earthclassmail.com/addresses

Why do people get in trouble for feeding the homeless?

One of the ways that the legal system protects homeless people is to keep them from being victimized, in various ways, by dangerous handouts. Food handouts, for example, when they are not cooked or stored properly, can make recipients very sick. So there are laws about food preparation and management. Restaurants, organizations, and food trucks all have to follow these laws. Typically, these are health department regulations. But there can also be criminal laws that apply–such as homicide and battery laws that would punish one person for poisoning another.

Some people think that they are being helpful by collecting and handing out unused prescription medicines to people on the street. That is illegal drug distribution in every jurisdiction. Only licensed medical doctors can legally decide which kinds of medicine a patient needs. Most of the donation punishment stories that upset the public are about food donations.

When companies or nonprofit groups operate a system for distributing food to the homeless, they have a limited degree of protection from the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This is a federal law that protects food donors (whether they donate groceries or cooked meals) from various kinds of liability unless the food that they donate either makes a homeless person sick or kills a homeless person. Most of the time, these donors are not supposed to be charged with violating the federal laws about food packaging and food handling unless they are grossly negligent or intentionally commit misconduct with the food. If they know that something has gone wrong with the food and they are donating it to an organization that will then distribute it to the homeless, they have to tell the organization what went wrong.

Here is an example: Suppose a canned food company has a mix-up at its factory and a hundred cases of canned black beans are mistakenly labeled as canned tomatoes. The company cannot sell those, so they decide to donate them to the poor. This Food Donation Act requires that the canned food company explain the problem to the organization that they donate the cans to. The organization receiving those cans of beans has to (1) be able to fix those labels and then it has to (2) actually fix them. This is not a hard task: They can just print any normal white labels in their usual printer and write on those labels that a mistake was made in the factory packaging and these cans actually hold black beans, not tomatoes.

There is nothing in this federal law that treats major corporations differently than small local food donation services. However, the law specifically says that nothing in it “shall be construed to supercede State or local health regulations.” This is why food donors can still get in trouble for not having the right kind of dish washing facilities or not keeping food at the right temperature.

A chef in San Antonio, Texas who was serving gourmet meals to homeless people got all kinds of media attention when the police cited her for not operating out of a food truck. This chef had a permit for a food truck, but on the night that the police ticketed her, she was distributing food out of a different vehicle. The reasons for the food truck permit laws are all about food safety. Those trucks have to have a certain level of cleanliness and they need refrigeration and adequately warm operating areas for keeping hot food at a safe temperature, plus other features. This chef obviously knew about these rules since she had satisfied the requirements to get the permit, but on that night she brought out food that was not properly stored because it was not in a registered food truck. She truly did break the law and put people at risk.

Her response to the ticket, at least in the media, (she has not gone to court as of this writing) is that she has a First Amendment freedom of religion right to give food to poor people. That is a nice position to take, but it is not relevant to the law she broke. No matter what motivated her, she was only allowed to distribute food from the safe food truck for which she had a permit.

The federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act only deals with punishment after food recipients have gotten sick. Local, county, and state laws aim to prevent anyone from getting sick by regulating what happens to the food before it gets served. Anybody hoping to offer food donations to the homeless should contact the county health department and the local police to find out in advance how they can be sure that their donations will be safe and legal. And anyone who does get in trouble for violating a food or medicine donation law should appreciate that the authorities are trying to keep the recipients safe.

1. Here is the federal food safety information that applies in all of the states. http://www.foodsafety.gov/

2. Here are links to state agencies regulating food safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/additional-recall-links/state-departments-of-public-health/ct_index

3. Here is a portal to the various sorts of laws relating to drugs. http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/drug-charges.html

What is the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS)? Does the law require homeless service providers to record information about clients?  If so, where does that information go and how is it used?  If I don’t answer the questions, will I be turned away?

A Homeless Management Information System is a database of personal facts about the homeless people in a community.  These facts are gathered from homeless people when they get services from federally funded non-profits and government agencies.  So, if someone spends a few nights in a shelter that gets noted in the database.  If he needs insulin at the shelter, that gets noted in the database.  If he goes to some other funded facility for a shower and shave, that is entered into the database.  If he participates in vocational counseling or is a veteran or underwent a gender transformation, those facts go in the database.  As you can see, some of these facts are gathered just as a result of participation and some are gathered when participants answer questionnaires.

These databases exist because every local and state service provider that uses federal money to provide programs, services, or resources to homeless people must collect information about how it spends the money and then report that information to the federal government.  All that they report to the federal agencies (HUD, HHS, and the VA) are the numbers, no names.  They do use the names in the community though, so that the various providers can have a total picture of each person’s needs.

Every community of homeless service providers, whether it is a city or a county or a region—depending on how homeless services are organized in that area—contracts with a database vendor to create its own HMIS.  Then, as a homeless person goes from one agency to the next, he or she does not have to go through the whole exhaustive intake process each time and the provider can see any facts that might help them to best serve the client and make referrals to other entities or new programs that will be relevant to that individual consumer.

You have two ways of protecting your information:

  1. You can refuse to answer any of the questions that you object to. Refusing to answer will not make you ineligible for the service, but it will mess-up the provider’s records and can compromise its future funding.  In the unlikely event that a provider says that you are legally required to answer a particular question if you want the service, you should direct that person to page 11 of the HMIS Data Standards Manual https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/HMIS-Data-Standards-Manual.pdf which specifically says that “client refused is considered a valid response.”
  2. You can obtain a copy of your database report and tell the provider to remove any items that you do not want to have on record.

Sources:

  1. See Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 578 to read the regulations about Continuum of Care Services for homeless populations. http://www.ecfr.gov
  2. Consult the HMIS Data Dictionary for clear definitions of just about every topic related to homeless life and government funding. https://www.hudexchange.info/resource/3824/hmis-data-dictionary/
  3. The federal HEARTH Act established the requirements for federal agencies to collect and utilize client data and more accurately audit the way resources are allocated for the homeless population. Read about this law and related actions at https://www.hudexchange.info/homelessness-assistance/hearth-act/.
  4. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates local and state efforts to eliminate homelessness.  You can see their research publications, some of which use data from the HMIS collections, at http://usich.gov/usich_resources/.

Thank you to Bill Hale who suggested this array of questions, made sure I knew about resources, and checked his own data in the HMIS.

Living in Your Car

On June 19, 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Desertrain v. Los Angeles against the city for ordering police to cite and arrest people who were living in their cars.  I published an analysis of the court’s decision at http://jurist.org/forum/2014/06/linda-tashbook-homeless-ordinance.php.  Cities should require their police departments to serve and protect the people who have to live outside–just like the serve and protect everybody else.  Please read the article and pass it along.

Can shelters require you to take a drug test?

Privately operated shelters are generally allowed to limit their populations in ways that might surprise you: They can allow people of just one gender to stay there. They can exclude children. They can exclude drug users. If the shelter is committed to keeping out drug users, then it has to be fair and legitimate in figuring out who is using drugs. The most reliable way to be sure that the shelter does not have any drug users is to conduct scientific testing.

If a shelter is testing for drug use just to prevent drug crimes from happening then, depending on whether and how it is connected with the government, it may be violating the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment which requires that investigators (or drug testers) have both 1. probable cause to believe that a particular person has committed a certain crime and 2. a warrant issued by a judge in order to search for evidence connected with the crime. http://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-04/07-probable-cause.html  To simply guess that a person coming into a homeless shelter might be drug user would not, without other proof, justify a drug test.

If the shelter is targeting certain individuals or groups for drug testing, then those individuals or groups may have a legal claim of discrimination.

Even if the shelter is testing everyone or else is doing random drug testing that doesn’t target individuals or groups, the drug tests might be seen as invasions of privacy. The ACLU takes a strong stand on this and has won court cases by proving that the entities testing for drug use did not have reasons that outweighed people’s right to have the chemical content of their urine kept private. http://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/drug-testing Contact your local ACLU office if you want them to consider suing a shelter for its drug testing practices. http://www.aclu.org/affiliates

In most states, if there is any drug testing law at all, it is about when and how employers can test workers for drug use. You can peruse those state laws via Nolo Press at http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/employee-rights-book/chapter5-3.html Even though employers and shelters have separate specific reasons for conducting drug tests, the reasons are probably connected with safety in both settings. So, if you have to argue against a drug testing policy you might want to first see whether you have a state law and then compare the shelter’s policy with it to see if the policy looks like it complies with the law. If you don’t think it does, contact Project H.E.L.P. http://homelesslegalprotection.com/h-e-l-p-locations/ or the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty http://www.nlchp.org/contact_us.cfm or your local legal aid office. http://www.lsc.gov

How can homeless advocates get laws to change?

There are several components to getting laws changed so that public services can better include homeless people and so that the government can better protect homeless people.

First, it is necessary to develop a very clear statement about how the law needs to change.
Examples:
If government services exclude homeless people because they lack an address or particular ID documents, maybe advocates should petition for exceptions to be added to those particular regulations .
If the crimes code doesn’t adequately deal with violent attackers who target the homeless, then perhaps the state’s hate crimes law can be modified to include crimes against the homeless as hate crimes.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has an excellent online compilation of its Congressional testimony, letters to lawmakers, and authoritative commentary on proposed laws and regulations. http://nlihc.org/library/testimony/testimonies  Peruse these documents to see good examples of concise and persuasive ways to state your concerns.

Here are some samples of legislative issue lists from assorted homeless advocacy groups:
Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness
http://www.helpingtohouse.org/advocacy.php

Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless
http://www.rihomeless.org/AboutHomelessness/Solutions/LegislationWeAreFightingFor/tabid/267/Default.aspx

Washington State Coalition for the Homeless
http://endhomelessnesswa.org/action/

Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless
http://www.mnhomelesscoalition.org/

Second, advocates need to identify and involve legislators whose committee work directly relates to the problem needing to be solved. 

A great example of this is the work done by Sapphire Jule King, Founder and President of the International Freedom Coalition who first declared that Rhode Island needed a Bill of Rights for Homeless People. http://strongfamiliesnow.org/blog/2010/11/26/bill-of-rights-for-the-homeless/  See also Ms. King’s analytical editorial about how that final Bill of Rights failed to include critical protections against abuses by shelters, despite all of the input from shelter abuse victims.  Along with John Joyce of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, the International Freedom Coalition notified the state’s Human Rights Commission and Senator John Tassoni, Chair of the Rhode Island Senate’s Chair of Housing and Municipal Government, about a range of substandard government treatment of homeless people including the fact that they are often blocked from state government services because they lack street addresses to put on forms  and the ways they are harmed by homeless sweeps and other arbitrary government seizures of their possessions. They even got the senator to visit a homeless shelter.   http://www.strongfamiliesnow.org/documents/Homeless-Study-Working-Paper.pdf
http://strongfamiliesnow.org/bor/bill-of-rights-for-the-homeless/

Third, collect and share with legislators and the public reliable information to raise awareness about the issue.

The National Coalition for the Homeless does a masterful job of compiling facts about homeless life and has good experience at influencing legislation.  Read through some of their handbooks to see how to draft petitions, compose invitation letters to politicians, write a press release, draft a model law for the legislature to build-on, generate community support, etc…

Hate Crimes Manual— a packet of sample documents and instructions for getting your legislature to include attacks against homeless people in the hate crimes law.
http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/hatecrimes/hatecrimesmanual10.pdf

Fundamentals to Prevent Homelessness—a  packet of documents and instructions for getting political candidates to pledge that they will work to prevent and reduce homelessness.
http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/fivefundamentals/index.html

The National Association of Social Workers has a helpful Lobbying Handbook http://www.naswct.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=19 with practical instructions to help you through the steps of writing to legislators, organizing visits to the legislature, knowing how to testify, and other ways of making sure that your message gets through to lawmakers.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in its Human Services issue section http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/human-services.aspx?tabs=858,50, provides information to legislators who are trying to develop new laws and amend old laws with provisions for people in poverty. The site specifically says that “NCSL staff can provide [for legislators] comprehensive, thorough, timely and in-depth information on critical human service policy issues.”  The same site also tells about and links to recent federal and state legislation on assorted poverty issues.