CITY HALL — A pilot project focused on helping homeless individuals access services and clear court records of so-called “quality of life crimes” is being extended and expanded, all while costing taxpayers less money, city officials said Thursday.

The Homeless Community Court, which was previously operated out of the City Council Chambers one half-day each month, is moving to the Airport Courthouse and will be in session two half-days a month, featuring a court commissioner who already handles drug offenses and is familiar with Santa Monica cases, said Julie Rusk, City Hall’s director of Human Services.

The court, created in 2007 at an initial cost of $670,000, will now cost taxpayers $540,000, with money coming from the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and the federal government in the form of Community Development Block Grants. The cost is lower because the program has been moved to the courthouse and will not be held at City Hall, which required additional security and other costs.

“This is going to allow us to move into a stronger phase of the program,” Rusk said.

Resources will be focused on the most chronically homeless, with social service providers being called on to transport clients to and from court. A mental health social worker at the courthouse will also be utilized.

There was some concern that since the court was a pilot project funding could be discontinued, especially given the struggling economy and threats from Sacramento to raid local coffers. City officials and Yaroslavsky felt the court was too important to close, especially since it saves money in the end by getting people off the streets and out of the legal system.

City officials conservatively estimated in 2007 that the annual cost of providing police, paramedic and city jail services to chronically homeless people could run as high as $8,000 per person, along with substantially greater costs to the county in additional jail, court and hospital expenses.

Because of overcrowding in jails, many cited for non-violent offenses were being released early, having served just a small portion of their sentences. This led to a revolving door with no real progress, supporters of the court said.

With the Homeless Community Court, individuals with drug or alcohol addiction are forced into rehab and in exchange for their commitment, their charges are dropped.

Some participants have relapsed while a very small number have failed to participate, city officials said, however, those who have stuck with the program say it has helped them tremendously.

Since February 2007, 156 people have been referred to the program. Of those, 94 percent were successfully engaged in ongoing case management; 69 percent had citations and warrants dismissed; 52 percent transitioned into some form of housing; 22 percent received substance abuse treatment and 23 percent engaged in mental health treatment, according to city officials.

Nicholas Vrataric, executive director of the CLARE Foundation, a nonprofit foundation providing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, said the court has worked as motivation for people to get their lives back on track because it offers them a chance to start over with a clean slate.

“There are people who just don’t care, and this program isn’t for them, but there are others who are really getting something positive out of this,” Vrataric said. “It also tends to drop some of the stigma that is often attached to the homeless or drug addicts or alcoholics. Whenever you can get a judge involved in a program, it seems to get a lot more community support.”

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