PORTLAND – Darin Miller didn’t know he was making history when he appeared before Judge Alicia Fuchs on Friday.
The homeless man who turns 44 this week pleaded guilty to “alcohol in the park” in a courtroom set up inside a Portland homeless shelter, thus becoming the first defendant in a groundbreaking attempt to help people living on the streets.
“First time here, hopefully the only time,” Miller said before making his plea.
Taking people such as Miller out of the court system, off the streets and into housing is the ambitious goal behind Multnomah County’s decision to place a community court inside a homeless shelter – the first in the nation.
People living on the street often fail to show for court hearings, and the consequences of their actions are not felt until the outstanding warrants prevent them from getting a job or a place to live. Meanwhile, those who do show often fail to follow through on court-mandated community service or counseling.
Doreen Binder, executive director of Transition Projects, a nonprofit that helps move homeless people into homes, figured both problems could be solved if the courtroom moved into Bud Clark Commons, a Portland homeless facility that provides services ranging from laundry, lockers and showers to addiction counseling and a 90-bed shelter.
The building that opened last year is fittingly located at the edge of a bridge in Old Town, a section of downtown where homeless people congregate.
Unlike a traditional courthouse, it removes a barrier by providing homeless people with space to leave their pets, shopping carts and camping gear. Once inside the makeshift courtroom, the defendants can’t avoid seeing social service providers because they are in the same room.
Julius Lang, director of training and technical assistance at the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, called the effort “historic” and praised prosecutors, public defenders and the judge for their willingness to leave the regular courthouse.
“This is a really interesting experiment,” Lang said. “Everybody is stepping out of their comfort zones, and that’s cool to see.”
The court, which convenes every Friday, has been open for two sessions, and the difficulty of getting homeless people to show up remains vexing. So far, Miller is the only one of 25 people on the dockets to attend a hearing. Judge Fuchs said officials hope to solve the problem by scheduling court dates closer to the day a citation is issued.
“Welcome to the new court at Bud Clark Commons,” the judge said Friday before sitting at a small worktable on wheels, her white tennis shoes visible to the prosecutor, defense attorney and handful of spectators sitting on plastic chairs.
After reading the names of 10 men who failed to appear, she was pleased to see Miller approach.
Miller, after meeting with Larry Turner, director of the behavioral health program for Transition Projects, agreed to attend four sessions of a men’s therapy group and six sessions of narcotics anonymous. If he follows through, the guilty plea will be erased from his record.