Things were looking up for Roy Burress.
After a few years living on the streets, he moved into a Santa Rosa motel converted to homeless and veteran housing where he started volunteering with an eye toward full-time employment.
Then financial disaster struck.
Burress was pulled over by the CHP for driving in the carpool lane on Highway 101. He was slapped with a $500 ticket.
Fearing he would never be able to pay it and could lose his license, Burress turned to Sonoma County’s new homeless court, where Commissioner Anthony Wheeldin allowed him to work off the steep fine with 25 hours of community service.
It was the break he needed.
“I’ve never been in a courtroom where they have so much compassion for you,” said Burress, a onetime resort manager living at the Palms Inn since mid-February. “It’s pretty amazing.”
He isn’t the only one smiling about the specialty court, which debuted this week at Sonoma County’s Hall of Justice in Santa Rosa.
About a dozen formerly homeless people cited with infractions ranging from illegal camping and panhandling to speeding appeared before the commissioner seeking relief from snowballing fines they said threaten their chances of success.
In many cases, Wheeldin, who presides over traffic court every day in the same room, agreed to dismiss charges against defendants referred to the court by homeless advocates in exchange for agreements to perform volunteer service or pay reduced fines.
He put some on track to get suspended driver’s licenses back, while urging others to do things like pay child support.
All his decisions came with words of support.
“You’ve taken the first step,” Wheeldin told a woman with six different cases. “You reached out. And we’re reaching back.”
Homeless court, which will convene four times a year, is an effort to encourage greater access to the judicial system while eliminating hurdles that keep people from finding permanent housing in the pricey Bay Area.
The rate of homelessness in Sonoma County is three times the national average, with 3,107 people identified last year as living on the streets or in shelters. The number could be even higher because the official count includes only people visibly homeless.
This year’s figures are expected to be released this spring. A perceived increase around Santa Rosa and the Russian River may be driven by efforts to clear camps from rural areas and along the train tracks.
Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, said mounting fines and lost driving privileges swell homeless ranks since people can’t pass background checks for housing or get to work.
“We have so many people who are homeless and on streets,” Berland said. “If they can’t get a job or house because of an open infraction then they just stay homeless. We’ll never be able to end this problem.”
Realizing the circular nature of fines, Berland collaborated with other nonprofit groups and the Sonoma County bench to establish the special court.
Homeless people in a shelter or other program can be referred by that agency to have their cases heard. The court has no jurisdiction over felonies and misdemeanors.