While the court has held only a handful of sessions at its new location thus far, according to Judge Roanne Sragow, who presides over the court, the change has improved accessibility for the homeless, and increased the court’s ability to carry out its mission.
The Court changed locations twice in the past two years, first relocating from Medford to the Salvation Army Church on Mass. Ave in Central Square, before arriving at its current location at First Parish Church.
The Court was moved due to the difficulties the homeless faced in trying to reach its previous location in Medford, which was not well-connected by public transportation, according to Sragow.
The difficulty in reaching the court in Medford meant that many homeless defendants failed to appear in court. This kept the court from being able to reduce the recidivism rate among the homeless as it hoped, Sragow said.
“What was happening was that the default rate was rising tenfold," she said. "They just couldn’t make their way over to the court in Medford. Often, they were arrested on the way to the court."
But Sragow said the move from Medford to the Salvation Army Church in Massachusetts Avenue helped change this, increasing accessibility for Cambridge's homeless population, a sizeable portion of whom reside in the Square.
“The most amazing thing about moving from Medford was that first day word got out we only had a few cases on the list, but the room was packed because everybody there who had a Court case showed up and they were so happy that they didn’t have to agonize over heading to court in Medford,” Sragow said.
Though the court’s move to the Square is fairly recent, it has been operating since 2011. It was first established under Massachusetts’s Homeless Court Program, which aims to remove the legal challenges encountered by the homeless.
The specialty courts established under the program were tasked with the responsibility of resolving minor misdemeanors and outstanding charges against homeless individuals. The court aimed to resolve such charges quickly because these charges often prevented homeless defendants from obtaining housing and employment later on.
While the Cambridge District Homeless Court is tasked with the same core responsibilities of the Massachusetts Homeless Court Program, it has taken it upon itself to further extend the scope of the services the specialty courts provide.
“We are assisting people to find housing and detox. We have had people show up that we have had to take immediately to the hospital for health issues,” Sragow said.
Denise A. Jilson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said having a specialty court that serves the homeless in Harvard Square is “very important—especially given the kind of 'homeless' court that Judge Sragow presides over."
"It is full of empathy, compassion and goodwill,” she said.
—Staff writer Hamid A. Khan can be reached at email@example.com