Homeless get help, hope from SLC event that includes makeshift courtroom

Mar 24, 2023, 8:51 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of homeless people gathered at the Salt Palace Friday to connect with services — including a makeshift courtroom — that could help get them off the streets.

The event is called Project Homeless Connect. It started in 2016 and is back for the first time since before the pandemic.

Even something like getting your teeth cleaned or getting your warrant expunged or just connecting with a person, there’s so much good that comes out of this,” said director Michael Akerlow.

Attendees took advantage of services that offered free clothes, food, haircuts and massages. Other services offered financial help and resources for jobs and housing.

“I think me and my kids are one of the lucky few that get the opportunity to stay in the local homeless shelters,” Tracy Himes said.

Himes said she has been living on the streets and in shelters since July of 2022 with her two mentally disabled kids who are in their 20s.

“There’s not very many resources for our predicament,” she said. “I’m not holding my breath, but I’m holding out hope.”

Hope that amid the free resources, something would be able to help her and her family get to a better place.

“There’s some that have less hope than I’ve got,” she said through tears.

But accessing housing and job services can be impossible for others who are facing legal barriers.

“When they don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight, it’s hard for you to remember you have a hearing in a courthouse six weeks from now,” Will Carlson said. “They can end up getting arrested, and that can throw away all the progress that they’ve made.”

Carlson is a deputy district attorney with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

“By being able to resolve the cases today, we’re able to connect them to resources immediately, and hopefully help them turn their lives around.”

To do that, they turned a booth into a makeshift courtroom, complete with public defenders and private attorneys who volunteered their time and judges.

“Some people feel that it’s about not holding the unsheltered community accountable for their crimes. That’s not true. They’re being sentenced. The sentence is equivalent to the fine you would pay for a similar offense,” said Judge Jeanne Robison with the Salt Lake City Justice Court. “It isn’t about giving them a pass for criminal conduct, but it is about providing access to justice.”

Not all cases brought before the booth will be resolved, but it opens the door for many to get the help they need when they need it and to point others in the right direction.

“The simple act of recalling a warrant can help them access other services that are here for them today,” Robison said.

Himes isn’t sure what may come from her visit to the Salt Place, but like others, she hopes to find services that not only help her today but that will help her down the road.

“With kids and dogs, it’s a lot harder than a lot of people think,” she said. “Every little bit of hope helps.”

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Homeless get help, hope from SLC event that includes makeshift courtroom