With each interaction she has with someone experiencing homelessness in Chandler, Ashley Halterman wants to ensure each person is cared for. After all, she has been there herself.

“I think it means more to me than it would to somebody else,” Halterman said. “I also suffered from an 11-year drug addiction and was homeless for 4 1/2 years. It’s really rewarding to be able to use my experience to be able to help other people through the hardest times.”

Halterman is the city’s navigator dedicated to helping people connect with resources through Chandler’s new support court, which is designed for people experiencing homelessness who have been charged with a misdemeanor offense.

The court is set to fully launch in January, Neighborhood Resources Director Leah Powell said. Once those experiencing homelessness are charged with misdemeanors—such as trespassing or disorderly conduct—they will need to appear in the support court and be connected with Halterman, who will assist them in getting to their court appearance and with accessing resources they may need.

Resources can include anything from getting copies of birth certificates or social security cards to getting new clothes or finding housing solutions.

“Telling someone that not too long ago I was them; I was in their shoes; I think that means something,” Halterman said. “I think it means that people are more likely to engage in services. I tell people that instead of having a degree or fancy letters after my name, I have a bachelor’s degree in street science.”

The support court is the latest in a string of efforts Chandler has employed to curb a growing homeless population in the city. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has worked with nonprofits to help residents pay their rent and utility bills, and has worked to find housing solutions for those in need. The city also has its Change Up program in which residents can donate money directly to help those experiencing homelessness.

Chandler saw a 38.89% increase year over year in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city, according to the latest point-in-time count conducted in January 2020. But the city’s homeless population remains relatively small compared to the city’s overall population—with 75 people experiencing homelessness in Chandler in January 2020. Officials are hoping to curb the growing trend in Chandler and in the East Valley by directing people to resources whenever they can.

Powell said the new support court is yet another way the city is hoping to help people by connecting them to the resources and support they need.

“It’s an important tool to break the cycle of homelessness that impacts the whole community,” Powell said. “People experiencing homelessness have more frequent interactions in the emergency room, with the fire department, with the police department... When people don’t have resources, it impacts the entire system.”

Inside the support court

Presiding City Magistrate Alicia Skupin said the court was founded after officials saw a need to address a population that might not fit into the city’s mental health court, as some people who are experiencing homelessness may not have a mental health diagnosis that qualifies them for that court—but they still need help.

The court is expected to cost about $120,000 in salaries to run. Officials do not yet have an estimate of how many people it will help a year.

Unlike some other Valley cities, people experiencing homelessness are not charged or cited for sleeping in public places, Powell said. That leaves most misdemeanors to be trespassing or disorderly conduct.

Through the court, Skupin said a person can get a reduced charge or get charges dismissed entirely as long as he or she complies with the requirements set by the prosecutor and judge.

“It doesn’t cost the city much, and the payoff is tenfold,” Skupin said. “Not only the people who are charged, but really it alleviates repeat offenders. People who get help tend to not be repeat offenders, so it’s a win-win for the city.”

Powell said each person will have the option to connect with a navigator, but participation is not mandatory.

“The benefit is instead of people getting misdemeanor after misdemeanor, there is someone to help them remember they have a court date,” Powell said. “Then they can develop a plan and work the plan and see progress made and get out of this revolving door.”

A growing problem

Maricopa County has seen a 12% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness from 2019-20, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments. As of January 2020’s point-in-time count, 7,419 people were experiencing homelessness across the county. City officials said the growing population has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic across Maricopa County.

The East Valley had 944 people experiencing homelessness in January 2020, according to the count, up 28.26% from the previous year.

“There is an increase in the city, in Maricopa County and really across the nation,” Powell said. “Because we have put resources into trying to reduce homelessness, what we have found is that this support court is something else that we need in a whole host of resources. People experiencing homelessness who have these arrests—it’s a big barrier for them from getting them into housing.”

Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the National Homelessness Law Center, said many places across the country have courts dedicated to those experiencing homelessness but said the court is not solving the root cause.

“What is happening is these courts across the country are attempting to come up with programs to address the number of people who are cycling through the criminal court—even though they ought not to be there in the first place,” Fasanelli said. “These are Band-Aids that are trying to solve an issue by connecting people to resources. And sometimes they solve it, but it’s a Band-Aid for a problem that is actually a housing problem but is ending up in criminal court because people continue to be oppressed by the criminal system.”

Fasanelli described these courts as well-intentioned but said she believes the criminal system is ultimately not the place to address homelessness.

“For lack of sufficient affordable housing, you have police and the court system responding to the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “These programs are important for resolving an issue that continues in society today, which is that communities continue to arrest and cite people experiencing homelessness, and it’s important to understand what really needs to stop: We need to stop criminalizing homelessness. It should not be a crime to not have a place to live.”

Skupin said she is confident in the practices of the Chandler Police Department and said they often factor in mental health and housing circumstances when citing or arresting members of the public.

“We have quite a bit of patience with folks,” Skupin said. “The police department doesn’t like to charge people unless they have to. I don’t see any of those charges for sleeping in public; we see actual trespassing cases or cases where someone has gotten into a fight.”