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Carlton column: In homeless court, a chance

Judge Dick Greco Jr. poses for a photo with Winston Marshall on Jan. 13 at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in downtown Tampa. Greco posts pictures on a big graduation board.
Published Jan. 23, 2016

One afternoon a month in a busy Tampa courtroom come some unlikely moments in a city's struggle with the homeless.

Rows of hard wooden benches are filled with street people still in scruffy coats against the wintry weather outside. Most are middle-aged men, plus a few women, who have run afoul of city ordinances by holding up signs that say "homeless and hungry," panhandling or selling water by the road, or drinking a beer too close to a convenience store.

The crowd watches with interest as a man named Elbert Gnann faces the judge. Because he has stayed out of trouble for a month, keeping his end of the agreement, Assistant City Attorney Colin Rice announces his charge is dropped. And mandatory court costs are gone, a big deal in a population scraping for pocket change.

Then, the moment.

Judge Dick Greco Jr. steps down from the bench, black robes billowing behind him. "Can I get a picture with you?" the judge asks Gnann. "Certainly," he says. The judge puts an arm around him and they smile for the camera. That photo will join dozens of others already posted on a big graduation board in the courtroom, the judge beside other men who are bearded, disheveled, wary, and almost always smiling.

The two shake hands and the courtroom breaks out in applause, a sound that someone who lives on the fringes does not get aimed his way every day. Gnann shoulders his bag to leave. "Good job!" someone calls from the audience, small victory in a place where any is big.

It is fair to say Tampa does not have a reputation for unbridled empathy and support for the homeless, who stubbornly persist in the city's midst. But then there's Homeless Court — technically, the Municipal Code Enforcement Docket — where street people charged with minor crimes get a chance to get out from under.

Boutique courts, such specialty courts are called — though most, like drug court and veterans court, have loftier goals and heftier resources.

Here it's simple: Defendants have to be homeless, ready to stay out of trouble for a month and willing to enter into an "agreement." (Not a "program." This audience is leery of "programs.") No more charges, and yours is dropped. "It's basically just breaking the cycle rather than arresting the same people over and over again," says Dan McDonald, a homeless liaison officer with Tampa police.

In the meantime, there's help through the police, Sheriff's Office and Tampa Housing Authority for everything from getting a birth certificate — a high hurdle to the mainstream world — to jobs to housing. Today, there is cause for celebration: Housing Authority case manager Joanna Lopez-Walker reports a roof over the head of a homeless veteran two days earlier.

They stand before the judge and pull folded court papers from back pockets. One man wears a compass around his neck. A veteran shuffles forward in a walker. "Army. Vietnam," he says when the judge asks. They listen intently to what's offered, some clearly disbelieving.

"Thank you, Mister Your Honor," says a man whose charge is dropped.

If you aren't feeling the empathy, try practicality. Incarcerating someone even on a minor charge costs $124.24 a day. One man tells the judge he did six days in the county jail for holding a sign that said, "Looking For Work."

"No offense," the judge tells Jasmine Hudson, "but let's not see you again." As she leaves, a jokester in the audience leans in to quip, "See you in a month." She shakes her head. No.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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