The windowless municipal courtroom was standing room-only, the air thick with anxiety. Bodies crammed into the hardwood benches, oriented toward the front of the room: the space where, if we were in a church instead of a court of law, the pulpit would be. We were all there to pay our societal debts, to pay tribute to the idea of Justice.
Speeders, shoplifters (including one person who, famished, ate food without paying in the middle of a store), teenage fist-fighters, and — our community’s most reviled scapegoat — people experiencing homelessness.
As an advocate for people experiencing poverty, I’m frequently exposed to the vociferous proponents of “tough love” for our neighbors in need. People denounce relationship-first programs that “enable” and assert their preference for the government to “get rid of the problem.”
By “the problem,” I suppose they mean the people experiencing homelessness, and by “get rid of, I can only surmise they mean “make disappear.” They certainly don’t want their tax dollars supporting our neighbors in poverty.
The trouble is, they already do.
Everyone in the courtroom was there because they were cited by a police officer. The lowest-paid officer, according to the City of Colorado Springs salary schedule, makes $26.44 an hour. Between marking a camp for evacuation and citing those souls who violate the evacuation order, an officer spends at least one hour with each alleged criminal. Then there are the lowest-possible hourly wages of the judge ($27.31), the court clerk ($17.18), and the administrative support person (also $17.18). Between the average three visits to see a citation through to its conclusion, a full hour is easily spent with each of these officials, and that’s excluding the cost of government-subsidized court-appointed attorneys. So the bare cost of each of these citations is, at the least, $88.11.
In 2018, with the broad support of neighborhood organizations, Colorado Springs City Council approved a riparian zone camping ordinance which criminalized camping within 100 feet of a waterway and included possible penalties up to 189 days in jail — at the cost of $89 each day.
The cheapest motel in Colorado Springs, according to Google, is a mere $42.
I’m certainly not advocating that we — as a community — reallocate our general fund dollars to putting people experiencing homelessness up in motels. That would be absurd (even if it would ultimately save us money.) What I am suggesting, however, is that we consider diverting some of the funds we currently invest in the criminal justice system into programs that help people transform their lives. Incentives to build affordable housing. Substance use mitigation programs. Mental health programs. And yes, even programs that enable hungry people to eat.
In the courtroom that day, I knew four other defendants, only one of whom is stably, sustainably housed. One of the defendants, a man I call “Sunshine” because of his bright mind and disposition, defied the court instruction for veterans to identify themselves as such at the dais. Although he served our country, he stopped referring to himself as a veteran a year ago when — after months of unreturned phone calls to the VA — he was unable to attain the sealed medical records from his time with the military, which would have allowed him to replace his stolen Social Security card and obtain a Colorado identification card, which in turn would have allowed him to work, access supportive programs, and more. He was abandoned by the country he served when he most needed support.
Our next court date is in July. When I asked him if the citation and ensuing court drama would make him more likely to go to a shelter, he laughed. “I have PTSD,” he reported. “I can’t do the shelter.” His girlfriend, who has an autoimmune disorder that renders her vulnerable to airborne illness, also avoids shelters.
So, Sunshine will likely see other displacements, other citations, before he appears in court again. He may see the inside of a jail. He’ll feel the cold, hard fist of tough love.
But, no matter how hard he squints from those hardwood courtroom pews, no matter how nice the judge in his case may be, he won’t see Justice.
Kristy Milligan is the Chief Executive Officer of Westside CARES, an organization that serves people experiencing poverty and homelessness on the west side of El Paso County.