By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
When homeless people turn up in Broward County’s mental health court, Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren does everything she can to keep them out of jail.
One of the court’s few options was sending them to a Broward Outreach Center homeless shelter. But earlier this month, days after BOC told the judge it would no longer accept her referrals, she had visions of rootless, disturbed people being forced to grapple alone with a tough, lottery-like system to apply for a bed.
Her reaction was an “urgent” Nov. 7 letter to Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief asking for “immediate reinstatement of the court’s ability to refer qualified persons to Broward Outreach Center.” A copy was obtained by Florida Bulldog.
The letter has not prompted immediate action, but it has kick-started a conversation between county officials and homeless advocates about how to resolve the situation. Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry said Monday she will coordinate with Lerner-Wren to get non-violent offenders to the right places.
“I just don’t see us working at cross-purposes,” Henry said. “When you don’t have a system and everything is helter-skelter, you’re going to run into these types of problems.”
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, an originator of the Misdemeanor Mental Health Court, said he will complain to the county commission about the referral glitch. He was vehement in his criticism during an interview with Florida Bulldog.
“It’s extremely stupid and unproductive,” he said. “This sounds like government trying to work economically and efficiently without giving a whit about the people they’re supposed to serve.”
“It sounds like there’s a fight here, and I don’t understand what the fight’s all about,” Henry responded. “We want to help people who are homeless.” She said direct referrals from the bench don’t work because they are outside a central intake system that matches homeless people with available beds.
Lerner-Wren declined to comment. In her letter she lists seven practical and philosophical arguments against the policy that removes her from the referral process. She interprets it as requiring everyone who is homeless, mentally ill and wants a shelter bed to apply personally. They can either call a help line or find a homeless outreach van that roams the streets and has no set location.
Longer jail stays?
The court cannot apply for homeless services because it is considered a third party and therefore may not speak for a person who needs a shelter bed, according to the letter. The jail does not give inmates telephone access to the homeless hotline, Lerner-Wren wrote. So the policy change “will unnecessarily extend jail stays.”
Finkelstein disputed the assumption that a homeless, mentally ill person would not only understand the necessity of going to a shelter, but have the resources to persist in getting a bed. “If you think a person will take a piece of paper and do what it says without money, without a phone, without a bus pass, you are a fool if you think this is going to work,” he said. “It’s like sending a blind person out without a cane or a guide dog.”
Henry said the judge’s letter contains inaccuracies. She declined to specify them, saying she would discuss them first with Lerner-Wren.
As Henry describes the referral policy, the county changed it two years ago when the federal government made a central intake system a funding requirement. She said Broward Outreach Center ran into unspecified problems that finally resulted in the shelter rejecting direct referrals from Lerner-Wren.
Rev. Ronald Brummitt, president of the two Broward Outreach Centers and their sister facility the Miami Rescue Mission, referred a reporter to a county official for comment. He did not respond when asked why BOC informed Lerner-Wren this month about changing its intake procedure.
Finkelstein lamented what he sees as dwindling support for the court he helped create 20 years ago, the first of its kind in the country. “It was something that we touted, we were proud of, and the rest of the nation is following,” he said. “Why the county would cut that source of pride off at the knees, I have no idea.”
In her Nov. 7 letter to Sharief, Lerner-Wren reminded the mayor that in 2015, the Broward County Commission passed a resolution to join Stepping Up, a national initiative to reduce the jail population of people with mental illness.
“Whereas, without the appropriate treatment and services, people with mental illnesses continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in tragic outcomes for these individuals and their families…” the May 18, 2015 resolution states. Nationally 403 counties, including 14 in Florida, have passed similar resolutions.
Disability Rights Florida, a non-profit that advocates for the state’s disabled residents, joined Lerner-Wren in protesting the referral policy. David Boyer, the group’s legal director, wrote this in a Nov. 20 letter to the county: “The likely effect of limits on the court’s resources will be to lead individuals in this system to either re-offend or be forced into a similar mental health institutionalization.”