In Detroit if you can’t drive it’s hard to earn a living. Long commutes are common, and public transportation is unreliable or unavailable. It’s especially tough for people who have lost their driver’s license which can lead to losing jobs, mounting bills that are difficult to keep up with, and in the most extreme cases losing homes.
Street Outreach Court Detroit is a mobile courtroom that was established to help homeless people get their licenses back, so they can get to work and put their lives back together. The court meets once a month at a soup kitchen on the city’s east side.
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More than 600 meals are served every day at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on the east side of Detroit. On a recent Thursday, volunteers serve guests pepperoni pizza and salad with their choice of milk or juice.
(Sounds of the soup kitchen.)
But the soup kitchen is more than just a place to get a hot meal. Once a month it hosts a traffic court. It’s a chance for people who have lost their drivers license to get it back so they can legally drive to their job, make a living and rebuild their life.
Part of the Capuchins’ mission is to address the root causes of social injustice. Brother Ed Conlin is a chaplain at the soup kitchen. He says the court plays a role in that effort
“The reason we host it here is because a lot of our people won’t go down to the courts. They’ve been arrested, they’ve been set up, they’re afraid, and they’re even afraid to go to the hospital if are they get mugged or hurt because they’ll get arrested. This gives them the chance to trust us. They trust us in the kitchens and the courts recognize that and said, OK, we’ll come to you and they won’t have to.”
BAILIFF: “All rise. Street Outreach Court Detroit is now in session. The honorable judge Adrienne Hinnant-Johnson presiding. You may not talk, eat or use cell phones while court is in session. If you have a cell phone, please place it on silent or vibrate. Please be seated. Good afternoon everyone.”
Court is called to order, and Judge Hinnant-Johnson of the 36th District Court summons each defendant . The judge will hear 15 cases today, all are homeless men. Many of them are unable to drive because their license was taken away. Getting it back is an important step in rebounding from homelessness. So important that one man rode his bike from Wyoming and Fenkell, a 22-mile round trip. In the middle of February in below freezing weather.
JUDGE ADRIENNE HINNANT-JOHNSON: “This is case number S E 315-SEVEN-TWO-1101 driving while unlicensed and all of the matters set before the court.
Do you swear or affirm the testimony you’re about to give will be the truth, the whole truth… nothing but the truth?”
Each defendant takes a seat between his caseworker and defense attorney Charles Hobbs, a lawyer with the group Street Democracy.
Hobbs presents evidence to the court, including testimony and documents that show each defendant has successfully completed a work plan. This typically includes community service, applying for food assistance, and enrolling in job training. The plans are aimed at tackling the root causes of homelessness.
One by one clients share what they’re most looking forward to after they step out of the courtroom.
“My own independence, you know.”
Defendant Terry Scott is studying to become a barber.
“Oh, I come from, you know, 17 years incarceration, so I’m just trying to get my life back, clear up what I need to clear up and be a good father. Also, I’ve got a daughter and a son that was just born Sunday.”
Each defendant has his own story of struggling to live in Detroit without a drivers license. Gerald Wilson is a chef with Sodexo, a food service company. Wilson grew up cooking with his mom who taught him the importance of cooking from scratch and buying fruits and vegetables from the farmers market. Without a license, his commute is 3 hours.
“I catch three buses. I have to get up at two in the morning, out the door by three in order to get there by 6:30.”
Wilson hasn’t had a license for 10 years, and he’s racked up nearly $5,000 worth of traffic tickets. He didn’t make enough to pay off his debt, and he was scared of going to court. If he could drive, Wilson says, he’d be able to launch his own catering service.
“When you’re going through all of this and you kind of feel like, does anybody care? Is there anybody out here that’s concerned about me? Because you have all of these things coming against you.”
Mary Jones is with Detroit Action Commonwealth, a group that helps run the court program she has struggled with homelessness herself.
“And when you find people that will help you, they’ll take the time with you. It makes a difference in a person’s life, even how they feel about themselves and how they respond and how they go out and help other people.”
More than 400 people have been given a second chance to drive legally through Street Outreach Court Detroit. Clark Washington was once homeless. Now he helps run the program. For him it’s not just about helping people in need. It’s about supporting Detroit as the city tries to bounce back from bankruptcy and years of neglect.
“That’s the only way we’re going to bring the city back is bringing people back with it. Because if you leave the people in the same situation the city is going to go back right back to where it, you know, you came from. So we don’t want that. So we get the people back on their feet. We can get the city back cause we’re not giving up on it.”
JUDGE HINNANT-JOHNSON: “At this time, the court will grant defense counsel’s motion and the court will vacate any default judgments, waive any court costs and warrant fees, waive the local portion of the driver’s license, clearing fees, any adjudicated cases. Good luck to you sir. I wish you the best of luck.“
(APPLAUSE. SOUND OF GAVEL)
With their cases closed, people who appear before the court can move on to rebuilding other parts of their lives. Some will reconnect with families, others will get the job that they’ve been hoping to land. And for some having a license means no longer having to ride a bike for miles on snowy city streets to get to a very important appointment.
Support for the fellowship comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) and through matching gifts from station donors, The International Association of Culinary Professionals’ foundation, The Culinary Trust, and its Growing Leaders Food Writing program. The Food Writing Program is funded with the support of the Boston Foundation.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.
Food, Borders and Belonging explores food in Detroit from the perspective of immigrants and African-Americans. Inspired by the Feet in 2 Worlds Food Journalism Fellowship at WDET, this series of stories looks at the role food plays in the transformation of city neighborhoods and in defining identities.