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‘Kayak Court’ provides the homeless with access to legal services in Salt Lake City

By Lauren M. Johnson, CNN

Court workers in Salt Lake City are helping the unsheltered resolve their outstanding cases by taking the legal process to homeless encampments.

“Kayak Court” was named by Judge Jeanne Robison and her friend Kim Russo, who is a social worker. They frequently kayak down the Jordan River where there are several camps for people experiencing homelessness.

Robison said she and Russo bounced around the idea of creating a court that goes to these encampments to help them resolve citations and other legal issues. The unsheltered who live in the camps rarely step into a courtroom to resolve the issues.

“It was kind of a half-joking statement, but we began to talk more about it and think ‘Wow, this would be really cool,”‘ Robison told CNN.

To get the idea to work, the women employed the help of Michelle Hoon and Allison Dupler of the Salt Lake City Housing Stability.

The team of women brought in volunteers — public defenders, defense attorneys, judges in their district and court administrators.

“We understand having warrants and open cases can be barriers (to self-sufficiency),” Robison said. “When we hit (this population) at the right time, when they are in that position when they are ready to make changes… we can help them make those positive changes and move towards self-sufficiency.”

How Kayak Court works

Once a month since May, the volunteers head to the homeless encampments.

Social workers paddle or bike ahead of the legal teams to identify individuals who would be open to legal counsel and resolving their cases. The case workers assess trauma and other mental health issues and decide if the person is a good candidate and ready for the service, Russo said.

Once the individual consents to legal help, the attorneys step in and discuss options and the cases against them. Usually, the defendants are facing violations such as public intoxication or public urination.

The judges take up the case right on the river or bike path and usually resolve the problem that day. That means there’s no need for the person to be summoned back to court.

District court judges also offer their time to hear more serious cases via WebEx.

The courts have been backlogged because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hoon told CNN, and Kayak Court has helped to quickly get some cases cleared.

Over 24 defendants with 32 cases have had their violations resolved since May. It may not seem like a big number, the team said, but that’s 24 people who trusted the government to come into their backyard and find a solution to a problem.

“It’s a holistic approach for the client,” Russo said. “They get their cases resolved but that’s opening doors to housing, it’s opening doors to employment and putting them on a path to self-sufficiency.”

Defendans are sentenced in a way that the judges think will keep them from violating the law again, Robison said.

“The goal is to hold them appropriately accountable,” she said. “Part of holding anyone appropriately accountable is addressing why they keep committing the crime, and with this population, housing or lack thereof, can be part of the reason they keep committing crimes.”

Collaboration is the name of success

The one word that would describe the success of Kayak Court is collaboration.

There are countless agencies, departments, and groups that help to make the whole thing happen, including Volunteers of America, Green Bikes, Jordan River Commission and the Parks and Recreation Department.

“This would not at all be possible without a true collaboration with everyone involved,” Dupler told CNN.

“Everyone comes at it from a different lens and perspective and I think you need all those lens and perspectives for something that has as many moving parts as this does and to truly meet all the needs of the individuals along the river.”

The collaboration makes their unique program different, Robison said.

“We’re the right kind of crazy. We’re not sure there are other communities that have crazy enough social workers, judges or attorneys. … We have had enormous support,” Robison said.

Hoon said the growing trust is a significant development since they started the Kayak Court. The people who come to court are starting to view the government as a “helper” instead of an “authority figure.”

“They are an important part of the community that needs to be served and we get to do it in a different and creative way,” Dupler said.

The team plans to expand their services to public transportation areas when the weather starts getting cooler.

“All of us have innate value as human beings but so often out neighbors who are unsheltered often feel invisible, so I think this view is helping them remember their value and that they are worth it,” Dupler said.

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