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September 16, 2014

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Las Vegas homeless embrace access to social, legal services at Cashman Center event

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Steve Marcus

Shane Emerick listens to a woman during the Fall 2013 Southern Nevada Project Homeless Connect at Cashman Field Center Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. The annual event brings together a variety of social and legal services to help homeless and low-income people.

2013 Southern Nevada Project Homeless Connect

Robbie Ashley gets a haircut from stylist Rachel Dombrigues, owner of Urban Hair Company, during the Fall 2013 Southern Nevada Project Homeless Connect at Cashman Field Center Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. The annual event brings together a variety of social and legal services to help homeless and low-income people. STEVE MARCUS Launch slideshow »

On a day designed to help give those without homes access to haircuts, food, medical care and a variety of other services, the line is longest for forgiveness.

It’s the 22nd Project Homeless Connect, which takes over the Cashman Center each year to gives homeless people access to a variety of essentials all in one place, on one day. Those services include the justice system.

Instead of the bench, Traffic Commissioner Shane Emerick takes the banquet table as he quashes warrants and waives fees totaling in the thousands.

“Woah. Really? Are you serious?” a woman gasps when he tells her that she is no longer wanted for arrest, her fees are waived and her case is closed.

“Just say thank you!” a few people, waiting to have their own cases called, shout.

“Thank you!” she sputters.

“Just leave!” someone else encourages. Flustered and smiling, she does.

Four courts — the Las Vegas municipal and justice courts and the North Las Vegas municipal and justice courts — participated in the day. Henderson will be holding proceedings to just address court cases of those who are homeless on a different day, Stacy Sutton Pollard, executive director of Nevada Homeless Alliance, said.

While Emerick usually handles traffic issues and is not a municipal court judge, he said he was honored to serve for the day. Emerick said he was asked because it seemed that it probably wasn’t best to have municipal court judges leave their regular court dockets behind — though that has happened in the past.

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Tracey Townsend pushes a stroller her his dog "Pup," a four-year-old Jack Russell mix, during the Fall 2013 Southern Nevada Project Homeless Connect at Cashman Field Center Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. The annual event brings together a variety of social and legal services to help homeless and low-income people.

Emerick worked with Project Homeless Connect when he was with Nevada Legal Services and as a public defender.

This was his first time wielding warrant-quashing power for the event, and while the position requires quick analysis of cases that are often complicated, he said he tried to err on the side of giving people a break.

While those who showed up all had warrants quashed, not all matters were dealt with in the makeshift municipal courtroom.

Mostly traffic cases were handled, though in some instances Emerick was able to deal with criminal cases and close them, he said, particularly if they were older cases.

Most criminal cases were given a future court date.

It wasn’t just a rubber stamp when it came to fine forgiveness, either.

Emerick said he tried to weigh what was fair to the individual, the system and the rest of the public.

For example, he said, if people were sporting True Religion jeans and fancy phones he figured they could manage paying off a fine.

Larhonda Glover was distraught when Emerick explained he’d like her to put $25 a month toward a fine. She’s a repeat offender when it comes to driving without a license and without insurance.

She thought everything would be forgiven.

“I just can’t get ahead,” she pleaded with the Emerick, referencing how long she’s been trapped in a downward spiral with the justice system. “You see, '05, '06. It’s 2013.”

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Amir Stewart, 2, hides behind his father's legs as they wait in a line during the Fall 2013 Southern Nevada Project Homeless Connect at Cashman Field Center Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. The annual event brings together a variety of social and legal services to help homeless and low-income people.

Emerick pointed out that she was still picking up cases, one as recently as last month.

“I’m giving you breaks, believe it or not,” he said.

Glover doesn’t see it. She left confused, worried.

She said she understood that Emerick reduced what she owed by thousands, but the new amount — $1,127 — still seemed insurmountable.

To her, $25 out of her pocket every month is a lot of money, and keeping up with court dates is stressful. If she can’t make a payment she will have to go to court, and getting to court might mean driving, which got her into trouble in the first place, she said.

“Dang! I missed a date,” she described. “They put out a warrant for my arrest. I’m arrested with four kids.”

Emerick said he understood it was hard for her to hear other people have their cases closed, but he is bound to also promote compliance with the law — and someone with a long history and fresh citations is troubling.

“It’s not fair to everybody else who has insurance,” he said. “I have to think of all of those people out on the roadway.”

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Marquis Ware plays with his son Marquis Ware Jr. as they wait in line for dental care during the Fall 2013 Southern Nevada Project Homeless Connect at Cashman Field Center Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. The annual event brings together a variety of social and legal services to help homeless and low-income people.

Emerick pointed out she had the option, as everyone did that day, of working off fines through a work program through the Salvation Army.

While Glover and a few others walked away muttering concerns about how they would manage what was required of them, others left stunned and thankful, murmuring prayers and pumping their fists.

Last year, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas Municipal Court saw 441 people and handled 972 cases, while Las Vegas Justice Court saw 533 traffic cases, closing 387 of them, and 74 criminal cases, closing 32 of them.

Getting legal issues sorted out can help break down barriers to other services that could be essential to getting to someone looking to get out of a cycle of homelessness.

Getting a job or housing can be tough if you’re in legal trouble, Sutton Pollard said.

“The line pretty much speaks for itself,” said Dawn R. Miller, a staff attorney with Nevada Legal Services, gesturing to the snaking line of hundreds of people looking to get warrants quashed and their cases heard.

Being able to come during Project Homeless Connect also makes the justice system more approachable, Miller said.

“Everybody else is doing it,” Miller said. “So it’s not so scary.”

The 2013 Southern Nevada Homeless Census and Survey estimates 33,882 people in Southern Nevada will be homeless at some point.

An estimated 2,900 people took advantage of the event, which had roughly 130 organizations volunteer.

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