Tough road

Homeless and in a wheelchair, Auburn man got little help getting to court—and jail for missing it

Vikki Emrick, a homeless breast cancer survivor, struggles to get from North Auburn to court in Roseville.

Vikki Emrick, a homeless breast cancer survivor, struggles to get from North Auburn to court in Roseville.

Photo by Graham Womack

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the July 12, 2018, issue.

When Deneane Williams was resolving an old DUI last year, she took no chances getting to court. Staying at the Right Hand Auburn homeless shelter, Williams had to contend with a 90-minute public transit trip, requiring two transfers, to reach the Santucci Justice Center in Roseville. Making her 8:30 a.m. appearance meant catching a bus in North Auburn before 7 a.m.

“I’m a worry person so I didn’t want to mess up at all,” Williams said.

In North Auburn, it’s easy to find homeless people with similar stories. Any transient person there with a legal issue beyond what the local homeless court can handle faces one of the most brutal public transit trips in the Sacramento region. First, per Google Maps, they must grab a Placer County Transit bus near the DeWitt Center at 6:35 a.m. for a 13-minute trip downtown. After a 12-minute wait to transfer, they then take a 30-minute light-rail train to Galleria Mall in Roseville. After a narrow five-minute transfer window, they board a 20-minute ride via Roseville Transit to Santucci. Should they fail to appear in court, they face the possibility of racking up additional charges.

“It’s a regular thing,” said Kaleb Mulford, as he stood in front of a popular homeless gathering spot across from Right Hand Auburn. “It’s too true of a thing that goes on in our community.”

South Placer attorney Samuel Berns said the county once had local municipal courts in places such as North Auburn, Loomis and Colfax. But in recent decades, California counties have shuttered these courts and referred matters to destination-style superior courts. Berns said that while this trend’s benefited county budgets, it “has really, really hurt that effort to get people to court for minor misdemeanor stuff.”

The county’s attempted to address this somewhat in the past few years by adding a local homeless court in North Auburn that can address minor infractions, such as illegal camping. Even so, on the Placer Superior Court appointment list, Berns regularly represents people like Robert Borden, who’s had several misdemeanor citations over the past year for public intoxication or trespassing. Getting to court in Roseville is hard enough for an able-bodied homeless person. Borden, 68, battles various health issues and is wheelchair-bound. As a result, he missed court enough times that a judge finally jailed him before releasing him on probation.

Berns said he’s had a half-dozen homeless clients in North Auburn in the past year, many of whom wound up with a similar deal. Putting someone like Borden in jail and on probation, Berns said, “instead of getting him preemptive services is really sort of a microcosm of … the problems with the approach that Auburn is trying to take with their homeless problem.”

In conservative Placer County and particularly in Auburn, homelessness has been a lightning-rod issue. Amid public complaints about the North Auburn shelter existing, the county has struggled to keep it under a consistent operator, with The Gathering Inn taking over July 1 after roughly three years of operations by Volunteers of America. At times, the polarized political climate has seemingly spurred harsh treatment of vulnerable people.

Vikki Emrick, a homeless breast cancer survivor, racked up five citations for illegal camping in less than a month last fall. Emrick also had to make the trip to Roseville, which isn’t that much easier for her than it is for Borden. Emrick said free bus tickets through the county are limited. Otherwise, the ride to Santucci and back costs approximately $6.

“It’s a long way down there and then it’s a long way back,” Emrick said.

It’s also tough getting back to the shelter from court if it lets out between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., when there are no buses from Santucci.

“It’s like buses don’t go there,” said John Kidd, homeless for about a year in Placer County. “You gotta wait all day to get out of there.”

Placer County Assistant Chief Probation Officer David McManus defended his department’s work around homelessness, saying people can access a variety of programs and that “the county has come together to really try to do something effective with this population.”

Deputy Probation Officer Siri McLeod, who estimated she gives bus passes to 25 of her clients per month, suggested running a single daily shuttle from North Auburn to Santucci might not work.

“I think sometimes with there not being as high as of a volume and you never really know when it’s going to be needed … that this process that’s been in place has worked pretty well,” McLeod said.

McManus also downplayed concerns about North Auburn homeless residents being able to get to court in Roseville.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” McManus said. “I understand some of the challenges of public transportation. It could be hours of travel time. But they can get there if they want to.”

Getting to court as a homeless person isn’t much easier in Sacramento County, where many legal issues must be heard out of Carol Miller Justice Center near Power Inn Road and Folsom Boulevard. Some homeless can’t afford the fares for the approximate 7-mile transit ride to the court from the downtown core, said Ronald Blubaugh, a pro bono attorney for the Tommy Clinkenbeard Legal Clinic at Loaves & Fishes. As a result, homeless people who want to show up for their court appointments risk being cited for fare evasion, a vicious cycle that perpetuates the circumstances of their poverty.

“Riding out there to take care of their ticket, they get another ticket,” Blubaugh said.