On Aug. 20, 20 canvas tents will be set up around the old Fort Ord pool area, but people won’t be roasting hot dogs and singing around the campfire. Instead, defendants will file into the large tents with the hopes that their minor crimes will be expunged by Superior Court judges. These tent courtrooms will even include bailiffs and a judge’s table, complete with a gravel.
More than 20,000 military veterans live in Monterey County, about 3 percent of them homeless. Veterans service providers recognize issues of substance abuse and mental health disorders commonly associated with military service.
From Aug. 19-21, they’ll host a Stand Down, part of a national weekend-long initiative to de-stigmatize veteran homelessness. The site on the former Fort Ord becomes a three-day tent city where an estimated 400-plus homeless veterans will access medical help, housing information, and job and life skills training.
On Saturday, “legal day,” lawyers offer free advice, and in the makeshift courtrooms, veterans with minor crimes can go through a formal hearing with the hope of expunging their crimes. Minor offenses like failure to pay a parking ticket or drinking in public can cause a lifetime of headaches and a pile of debt for homeless defendants who can’t afford to pay fines.
“Minor cases do affect their lives,” says Monterey County Superior Court Judge Sam Lavorato, who’s also a veteran. “They can lose their [driver’s] licenses.”
Judges from six county courts will be at the Stand Down: Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and San Francisco. Defendants will appear in front of their local judge, who will hear their case and render a decision. Most verdicts include volunteering at the Stand Down, such as cleaning latrines, to help veterans pay down their fines.
Robert Jurado, who served in the , participated in legal day in 2014. For several years, Jurado was homeless and faced charges including DUIs and failure to appear in court. His $10,000 in fines were thrown out by Lavorato in exchange for picking up trash around the Stand Down compound.
“It was emotional for me that day,” Jurado says. “This experience I saw as a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Jurado is no longer homeless, attends CSU Monterey Bay and is employed at CSUMB’s Veteran Student Services and Veterans Transition Center in Marina.
Lavorato also presides over the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, an alternative to traditional criminal courts for veterans. Since launching in January, the court has taken up about 20 cases.