On a Friday afternoon in a cafeteria at St. Elizabeth Shelter, two dozen homeless people sort through misdemeanor charges with public defenders and prosecutors. It takes about an hour to get through them all before the judge shows up.
Ann Yalman, Santa Fe's Municipal Court judge, enters through two steel doors. She slips a judicial robe over her casual clothes as her staff adorns a table with American and New Mexico flags.
"All rise," she says to the silent, polite vagrants who pack the cafeteria that serves as the city's Homeless Court. (Next month, the court will move to the Interfaith Community Shelter on Cerrillos Road.) Yalman commands respect from many of the court's regulars.
"She's a decent judge," Bernie "Pykko" Maestas, who's been homeless for 10 years, tells SFR. "If you miss [your court appearance] and aren't on top of your stuff, she does get upset."
The court is one answer to Santa Fe's ongoing homelessness problem. Roughly 1,500 homeless people walk the city's streets each night, according to 2007 statistics from the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
Treating the problem is never easy. This fall, several Railyard district residents complained that St. Elizabeth's weekly free lunch program was contributing to rising crime [news, Oct. 5: "Vagrancy"].
About 10-20 people show up in Homeless Court each month. Yalman started the program a year after becoming municipal court judge in 2006.
"I was shocked by the number of homeless that would appear in front of me," Yalman says. "I had never practiced in homeless court. And in private practice, you don't run into homeless people; they don't hire lawyers."
Yalman traveled to San Diego, home of the country's first homeless court, for inspiration. San Diego started the court in 1989 to give homeless offenders better reform options than jail time—a model replicated elsewhere.
"Before, they'd get picked up, go to jail, get bonded out, go back to jail," Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court spokeswoman Janet Blair says of that county's homeless court. "Now, if they accomplish work and graduate from homeless court, the charges get dismissed."
Santa Fe's court uses lenient sentencing to get the homeless off the streets rather than send them to jail. Yalman typically makes public drinking offenders attend mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and perform community service, where they are expected to document their attendance.
Results for homeless courts across the country have been mixed. In Orange County, Calif., 75 percent of 2008 program graduates hadn't reoffended as of 2010. In bigger cities such as Houston and Denver, success rates hovered between 40 percent and 50 percent as of 2007.
In Santa Fe, the results are less promising. Donna Lynch, a volunteer lawyer, estimates the court gets homeless people off the streets only 20-30 percent of the time. Yalman admits she's given up on some people.
Hank Hughes, the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, says the court is a great resource, but acknowledges its limits, such as finding housing for people with previous felonies.
Other advocates disagree with the basic premise. Paul Boden, organizing director with the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project, says homeless courts affirm the judicial system's tendency to criminalize people for not having homes.
"It's kind of like the road to hell being paved with good intentions," Boden tells SFR.
For Maestas, though, Santa Fe's homeless court offers an opportunity—if not guaranteed success.
During a recent hearing, Yalman wasn't sympathetic when Maestas said he hadn't started the community service required after prior public drinking charges. But after he proved his attendance at AA meetings, Yalman gave him another month to complete the service.
Maestas, who's struggled with homelessness and alcoholism ever since his wife's death from emphysema, says he finds the AA meetings helpful. But they haven't kept him completely sober.
"It's hard for me to say no to my friends. They drink, and I see it," he says. "I already fell three times in three months."
Maestas still spends most of his nights sleeping by railroad tracks near the bus depot. But he intends to keep up with AA and fulfill his community service requirements by December.