MOUNT VERNON — Having contact with the legal system can deepen problems already plaguing a homeless individual. However, it can also lead to getting in touch with programs that can alleviate those problems, and being held to them by a court order.
Knox County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel said he is cognizant that deciding on bond can have a financial impact on a defendant.
“Research shows that even short stays in jail lead to an increased likelihood of significant impact on family financial, housing and child custody issues for the accused and their household while awaiting trial,” Wetzel said. “These issues can result in homelessness of an accused, at least temporarily.”
Wetzel’s court hears felony cases. Individuals may appear in court on a summons, or be arrested.
In either case, Wetzel will set a bond, and whether or not someone has a permanent address is a factor in the bond conditions. Wetzel identified homelessness as a concern when setting bond, as “the lack of a fixed address does increase the safety risk for the accused individual and for the community.”
If a bond is granted, Wetzel may order the defendant into the court’s pre-trial services program. Established in 2017, the program carries certain conditions, including regular reporting to the pretrial services officer and updating their address. Keeping track of the defendant’s residence is part of managing the case from start to finish, Wetzel said.
John Thatcher, Mount Vernon Municipal Court judge, said that homeless defendants released on bond will often be ordered to report immediately to probation. To get a defendant to the municipal building from the jail, probation makes arrangements with Knox Area Transit for a ride.
David Priest, chief probation officer with Mount Vernon Municipal Court, said this initial meeting is very important.
“This may be the only opportunity to link them with available services, including admission to the Winter Sanctuary or with case management through Behavioral Health Partners (BHP) prior to release,” Priest said. “A case management referral for the homeless with mental health needs could simply help fill a script, assist with further transportation, or arrange other temporary housing options when the shelter may not be a viable solution.”
While the courts won’t usually order someone to get stable housing, conditions of bond may push them in that direction. If the defendant is found guilty, they may be sentenced by the court to obtain work, complete drug and alcohol treatment and undergo a mental health assessment.
The one thing a judge cannot sentence someone for is being homeless. Homelessness is not a crime, and most vagrancy laws have been ruled as unconstitutional decades ago, Mount Vernon City Law Director Rob Broeren said.
Living on someone else’s property in a homeless camp only becomes a legal issue when the property owner wants them off, Broeren said.
The most visible homeless camp in Mount Vernon recently was shut down at the end of this summer. Located off South Norton Street, the property owner put up a portable toilet and trash receptacle, apparently to help out the homeless individual’s situation.
The camp was closed with participation from Knox County Sheriff’s Office. No one was charged with trespassing or related crimes, Broeren said.
Mount Vernon City Safety Services Director Joel Daniels said homeless camps tend to spring up around the Kokosing River in the warmer months. The city usually does not take action on the camps unless the property owner asks them to, Daniels said.
“Unless it becomes a problem (for the property owner,) it’s not a problem,” Daniels said.
The South Norton Street camp was believed to have had as many as 30 people living in it, Daniels said. The population grew after the property owner put up the portable toilet, Daniels said, which drew in other individuals from outside the Mount Vernon area.
Daniels said the biggest concern for the city involving homeless camps is the accumulation of trash and waste.
Mount Vernon Police Chief Roger Monroe said the PD’s contact with the homeless usually involves trespassing, when they are living on someone else’s property. Of course, if a homeless person is breaking the law, they will invariably have contact with police.
Monroe said that once the homeless have been moved out of a camp, they are often on their own.
“We do not always have another place for them to go so they often have to fend for themselves,” Monroe said. Monroe explained when the PD does have contact with homeless individuals, “we guide them to the few resources we have when appropriate.”