Related story: Tulsa area homeless numbers decrease for second year
Tulsa's first municipal "homeless court" docket will be called Friday, and about a dozen people ticketed for relatively minor offenses will go before a judge.
Prosecutors hope it will stem the cycle of a transient population being repeatedly jailed instead of receiving help.
Some Tulsans are cautiously optimistic as the court nears its inaugural gavel bang in municipal court Judge Gerald Hofmeister's courtroom.
Hugh Robert, a Tulsa attorney and Iron Gate soup kitchen board member, is representing one of the people listed on Friday's docket. Somewhere from 10 to 15 names are expected to be on the finalized docket when it's called Friday. There are a variety of complaints on the docket, ranging from trespassing to public intoxication to assault and battery.
As far as the court and its stated goal of helping the homeless get mental health assistance, Robert said he thinks the court will help greatly, but he worries that some individuals will fall through the cracks.
He got involved after three people were ticketed in April outside Iron Gate, 501 S. Cincinnati Avenue, for trespassing at a next-door building.
Connie Cronley, executive director of Iron Gate, said police issuing the citations had stated they were summoned by a security guard at the Arco Building, which sits west of Iron Gate. That building is owned by Kanbar Property Management.
Stuart Price, who acquired KPM in 2012, and Iron Gate have had previous disagreements over how best to serve Tulsa's homeless community. Price declined to be interviewed for this story, but he is quoted in a 2013 Tulsa World story as saying it might be more appropriate for Iron Gate to move its soup kitchen to the homeless instead of having the homeless come to the soup kitchen.
Two of the people cited were ticketed before 7 a.m., about 90 minutes before Iron Gate begins serving food. The other cited person was ticketed at 9:25 a.m., as the meal was being served.
The fear, Cronley said, is two-fold. One, she fears that failure to appear for a court date would lead to an arrest warrant and a further downward spiral into the legal system for those who were ticketed. Two, she fears people are being unfairly ticketed for trespassing.
Iron Gate guests, unable to smoke on the church property, and unable to enter the locked church during the morning, may be traveling across the street to smoke near the vacant Arco Building, which is for sale.
Robert said he offered free legal assistance to the three people ticketed for trespassing outside Iron Gate last month. Trespassing citations carry a maximum fine of $250, but failure to pay the citation can result in a warrant for arrest. Only one showed up for court, and, as feared, the other two had arrest warrants issued.
Tulsa City Prosecutor Bob Garner said the new homeless court hopefully will prevent that outcome.
"It's a vicious cycle with some people," Garner said. "Many of them have alcohol or other problems, and they'll go to jail for a couple days intentionally just to sober up ... They end up with court costs they will never pay, and we end up having to arrest them again, when what they really need is help or mental health help."
Police officers, Garner said, may sometimes arrest homeless people for public intoxication, just to get them off the streets on a day that's too hot or too cold.
"There's kind of not a lot of options for us to do anything right now," he said.
So Garner joined Michael Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, and others to come up with the homeless court.
"It's basically an experiment," Garner said. "We've talked with mental health professionals and others, so we know we have support to help people if they want to be helped.
"If we can help just one person, that's one more person that will be helped than if we stay on the current path."
Rev. Steve Whitaker, president of the John 3:16 Mission, said he hopes the court will encourage other homeless to address their court issues.
"If we can remediate those issues before they get to the point where they're hopelessly lost in the court system, that would be ideal," Whitaker said. "That would be the ideal outcome."
Brose said the system was patterned after a similar homeless court in Santa Monica, Calif., which launched in 2007.
"The idea is that people, if they're willing to engage and address larger problems, can see an effect in their lives through this," Brose said. "How do you find a way to try and drill down to the core of what drives these issues? It will take a community, and different parts of the community ... that's what we're seeing more and more. Social services, law enforcement, we've got to come together and see how we can utilize the best of what each of us brings, to make Tulsa a more livable place for everybody."
Robert said he's seen several different surveys of the city's homeless population and that the number suffering from mental health issues is "really, really high."
For Garner, the goal is not sentencing but assisting.
"I'm not looking to prosecute them, really," Garner said. "I'm looking for them to cooperate with a program we can partner with. There are options here, such as agreeing to take an evaluation. That way we could get them some help. They could make arrangements to speak with a counselor.
"From our standpoint, if you will cooperate, we'll probably dismiss the case, with costs to the city. ... This, we hope, might be an alternative to continuing the program we're on now where we continue to incarcerate them over and over."
Brose said those who have worked to make the court a reality have worked hard to ensure its sustainability.
"We don't want to get excited about it, try it for six to eight months, and then drift back to business as usual," he said. "I think the worst thing that could possibly happen is that, you know, this is no miraculous cure-all. It's going to take some trial and error and the biggest downside would be for us to give up on it too early."
Dylan Goforth 918-581-8451
How the system works
People who identify themselves as homeless or transient and are on Friday's 2 p.m. docket will meet there with a mental health professional.
They will fill out a mental health assessment, and their case will be continued to a later date. Upon that date, a prosecutor will present them with a plan outlined by the mental health professional, and the case will be set for a future review.