Podcast: Community Court for Homelessness with Christopher Leonard, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Posted on January 15, 2021

Christopher Leonard - GovLove

christopher leonard

Christopher Leonard
Administrative Supervisor
City of Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Social services, not jail. Christopher Leonard, Administrative Supervisor for the City of Forth Lauderdale, Florida, joined the podcast to talk about the City’s community court that serves individuals experiencing homelessness. The program focuses on the root causes of each defendant’s issues and applies mandates such as community service, drug treatment, or social services to have their cases dismissed. He also explained how the court has continued to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt


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Fort Lauderdale Reopened Community Court Services

Community Court in Fort Lauderdale Celebrates First-Year Success

Fort Lauderdale launches Florida’s first homeless community court

Fort Lauderdale Community Court Website

Social Services, Not Jail: New Community Court Seeks To Address Causes Of Homelessness In Broward

Community Court Grant Program

Community Court Comes to Fort Lauderdale

Kirsten Wyatt  00:08

Coming to you from Portland, Oregon, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network, and we engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Kirsten Wyatt, ELGL co founder and executive director, and today I’m joined by Christopher Leonard, the City of Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s community court coordinator. Christopher, welcome to Gov Love.

Christopher Leonard  00:35

Thank you, Kristen, I appreciate you having me today.

Kirsten Wyatt  00:39

Today, we’ll talk about the city of Fort Lauderdale community court services, and Christopher’s work there. But first, let’s get started with a lightning round. So what is your most controversial non political opinion?

Christopher Leonard  00:53

I would say equity over equality. I’ve just noticed that not everyone starts in the same place or has knowledge or even access to the same opportunities as others.

Kirsten Wyatt  01:05

All right, and so what book are you currently reading? And would you recommend it?

Christopher Leonard  01:10

I’m currently reading Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, I would recommend it. How she applies the vulnerability concept reminds me to keep an eye out.

Kirsten Wyatt  01:23

And how do you apply that in your work day to day? Or have you yet as you as you read the book?

Christopher Leonard  01:28

Sure, so. So for me Brené’s vulnerability concepts really hit on opportunities where we can, we can be authentic, and build those connections, you know, that are necessary to get to the levels to really do in depth work, and to really allow the creativity and opportunities to come forth, whether it’s for ourself or even to empower others.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:01

I love that. I love that. So what was the first concert that you ever attended?

Christopher Leonard  02:07

It was in the early 2000s. It was the anger management tour. I mean, my my music taste has changed.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:18

Do you have any photos of you from that concert? I’m sure that maybe your fashion has changed, too.

Christopher Leonard  02:24

Yeah, my fashion of course has changed. Honestly, not to date myself. But I think that was even before camera phones.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:32

Oh, there you go. And then last lightning round question. If you could only eat the same thing for lunch every day for the rest of 2021, what would you choose?

Christopher Leonard  02:44

I would probably say homemade meatballs and spaghetti, I guess I like them.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:48

Oh, wow. I mean, just way to go big. I mean, just nothing light there, just you know, a big hearty, hearty lunch every day in 2021.

Christopher Leonard  02:58

Definitely, I definitely enjoy it. I guess the downside might be the garlic.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:03

Yeah, there you go. So let’s talk about you and your career path to your current position in Fort Lauderdale. Tell us about your path and how you got to where you are today?

Christopher Leonard  03:14

Sure, I’d say that my career path has been molded by my experience in education. I’ve been fortunate enough to have people in my life that believed in me and my potential. You know, even when life was rather challenging. I was born and raised in Delaware. I initially studied criminal justice with the hopes to be able to help people. I was initially interested in being a probation officer, but then I opted out of the corrections process, hiring process, to actually move to Florida in 2013. While I was finishing my undergraduate degree in behavioral science, I accepted an internship opportunity at a local nonprofit that specialized in providing social services to underserved groups such as the LGBTQIA+ community. And so just two weeks after graduation, I was offered a full time position as a case manager working with those living with HIV AIDS. And from there I was, during this time, I offered to be the domestic violence coordinator and co facilitated intimate partner violence support group. I was grateful to work with colleagues and a supervisor that that were interested in developing me professionally, and they encouraged me to further my education. I went ahead and completed my Master’s in social work, where I had the opportunity to intern at a nonprofit and also hospital services for behavioral science. As I reached graduation, I took a position with the City of Fort Lauderdale. I knew that this was bringing me more towards the administrative route. And so for me, it was an opportunity to at least work with programs that I’ve worked with in the past and even new programs like the housing program for individuals living with HIV. And, and the chance to kind of see the other side, the grant management portion, just the direct service portion. And while I was at the Housing and Community Development Division, I had the pleasure of working with a supervisor, who also was interested in developing staff to maximize their potential. During this time, I was able to work with the community court project, I was thought for my expertise, you know, having the criminal justice background, the case management background and the grant background. And it brought an opportunity for me to work with my predecessor to, to really get to understand the program. And when he’d leave, I was approached for the opportunity, and because my unique experience.

Kirsten Wyatt  06:21

Where did your initial interest in criminal justice come from? I mean, was that something that, you know, was something that you kind of long held as you are growing up? Or did something really pique your interest back when maybe you were still in Delaware and kind of pursuing that criminal justice degree path?

Christopher Leonard  06:37

Sure. So actually, I went to a County High School where they offered a high school diploma, and like a trade certificate. And so he with the concept of wanting to help individuals, I kind of look at looked at the options, and for me, identified with that. Going into it, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But by the end, that’s when I started going towards the probation and parole route. But I guess, you know, maybe those those crime shows or just the, just the complexity of the criminal justice system kind of intrigued me. 

Kirsten Wyatt  07:15

Right, Right. That’s pretty amazing. And what a great opportunity to have that combination of a high school diploma, and then also exposure to, you know, actual career paths and trades via that program. So tell us now about your current job. And, you know, you took over this position with the Fort Lauderdale community court, what does that entail? And what are you responsible? For?

Christopher Leonard  07:40

Sure, so my position is at the center of the program’s network and function, I’m responsible for both programmatic and fiscal grant management. I manage  the provider network, and coordinate all the, you know, associated meetings to discuss participants and also program updates. The city is the host site for for court itself. So I managed on site operations also.

Kirsten Wyatt  08:08

Okay, and what it who does the community court serve? And what’s the maybe short history of how it came to be?

Christopher Leonard  08:17

Sure, so the community court serves, mostly those individuals that are, that are homeless. And so the the city brought, the city and the court and other stakeholders got together to discuss opportunities to, to assist individuals experiencing homelessness. And so there was an initial grant that the city applied for, and they received support from from other entities as they applied for the grant. And then they worked towards planning to have this grant, so did a needs assessment. And in that needs assessment, it really allowed them to, really allowed them to look at what was needed to really make the the community impact. And, in general, sorry. One of the items I also wanted to mention was the, with this group, the crimes that that the court address are quality of life, crime, so things like public intoxication and things things like that aggressive panhandling, and so because individuals experiencing homelessness oftentimes don’t have either an address or they don’t have a phone or it’s difficult to get ahold of them. Oftentimes, you know, they would miss court dates or even things Like substance abuse or mental health may be barriers. And so the court really allows a community based approach for access and engagement.

Kirsten Wyatt  10:11

And what does that look like or what would maybe be kind of a story or an anecdote you can tell about how a person experiencing homelessness engages with the court, and then kind of all of those other you know, groups or support networks come into play?

Christopher Leonard  10:32

Sure. So I’ll I’ll talk in two, two styles, one having to do with an individual that receives an actual notice to appear with a court date. And then I’ll talk about how we have been able to engage walk in individuals that may not have a court case. With an individual that has a court case, oftentimes, it’s a notice to appear that’s written by Fort Lauderdale police. And they would be told to come the following Wednesday to court. And when they arrive at court, you know, they’re they’re greeted and engaged in a way that, that they, they feel safe, and they know that we’re here to assist. We have prior, so there’s also a prior to COVID, and post COVID. Um, well, prior to the onset of COVID. And then after the onset of COVID, with the way that the community court operates, it was initially designed to kind of be a one stop shop of services would have this, the service providers present there. And then we would also have like, so that would be like mental health services, medical services, substance abuse services, so that those providers could engage individuals. But then on site, we would have things like hair, haircuts, clothing, a meal for the day, and bus passes and other items like that. And so that individual would come to court, be assessed by Henderson Behavioral Health. And with that, they would be assessed and then engaged in the recommended services, and they also would have a chance to engage in any other volunteer services that they were interested in. And that, that assessment allows Henderson to make the recommendation to the judge for an individual that has an active case. And the recommendations are monitored over time and additional appearances. And once the individual completes those, those mandates, then their case would be dismissed. And so all of the charges that may be there would be dismissed. And so, you know, it really takes out the perpetual, the perpetual reset of well, the perpetual, you know, no shows and whatnot that were that were happening. And so the individual actually would be engaged in services and hopefully, you know, house or, you know, be offered housing during that time. So that would be what it would look like for an individual that had a had a case. For an individual that would be a walk in, it would look like, that they heard about community court, and so they would come to court. And I meant to mention, as I mentioned that the city host court, what that is, it’s at the City Hall commission chambers, okay. And so instead of being at the main courthouse, which can sometimes be intimidating, or even hard to get in and out, it’s at City Hall, which city hall is actually located by the main bus hub. So it’s, it’s more accessible. And with that, you know, this, individuals experiencing homelessness often, you know, they speak to each other, you know, about where help is and safe help. And so, somebody may, well, actually, I’ll use an example. We were receiving, we have families coming in and we hadn’t initially seen families coming through and our funder at the time, I talked to them about it, and what they said was, is that it’s gotten out into the community that this is a safe place, and we build up our resources to support this subgroup or this even to make sure that we’re able to assist and support the needs of families. And so that’s an example of, of walk in. So that walk in could come in and say, you know, I don’t have an open case. But I would like, I would like, I need assistance, you know, whether to get into substance abuse or mental health treatment, and so they could engage with the providers. And so with that, it really provided an opportunity and access to services in a safe space.

Kirsten Wyatt  15:38

that’s great. And it’s great that you were able to, I guess, pivot and make that adjustment to recognize the walk ins as well as people who are responding to court dates. You know, as you were kind of looking at that two pronged approach or the fact that you have two different types of people coming in, any issues with capacity? Or have you had to do anything with you know, with scheduling or with with, you know, kind of the, the chance that one day, you might have a lot of people that are doing drop in versus scheduled, or is that been pretty, pretty steady.

Christopher Leonard  16:14

So, part of the onset of COVID, that’s mostly the way I’ve been talking a lot change posts. Once we got back into session after COVID, we were out of session for about six months. So once we got back into session in September, on a virtual platform, things have changed. But prior to the onset of COVID, what it would look like is, there was so many moving parts in the way of you would have individuals getting a haircut or individuals out at the Medical van, or individuals you know, looking at clothing, but then there was actual providers that were there that have agencies that would be discussing appointments. So to throw out a number, we might have 20 walk ins. But then we might have 10 individuals that are on the court docket. So the walk in sometimes are a little bit touch and go, you know, if they come in, come to receive something, they may not need to come back because they got their appointment or you know, they may follow up. But those those cases themselves for individuals with court cases, they’re definitely followed and monitored. Post COVID, I’m sorry, I don’t mean post COVID, COVID is still happening. But once once we, we were out from the middle of March 2020, through the through the end of September. And when we came back into session, we put together a virtual platform where we were using zoom, we were using the providers were showing up on instead of the providers around the room as they were in the commission chambers. We had them on on iPads and chose some of the the main providers and had them appear on individual zoom sessions prior to court so that individuals would have the opportunity to engage with them. We chose an open air facility that actually was right next door to a COVID testing site. And oh, and so it was, it was different. And we did have capacity issues at that time. And sorry, when I say issues, I mean, we were monitoring our capacity. Were, we, we did not have an, we did not have a time where we were over capacity, because we were able to, we narrowed it down to the individuals with cases to make sure that we were able to focus on that, that main community court mission to to process cases and ensure that individuals, excuse me with with open cases were showing up for court, engaging in services, and being able to have them dismissed. And so our walk in aspect was not as high as that and so at times for special cases, by appointment only, we would we would have a walk in come if we knew that the capacity for the site would would support that. And then also, even outside of community court days, community court itself is once a week. even outside of those days, we would engage individuals and services even if it wasn’t on site. 

Kirsten Wyatt  19:58

And we’ll include a picture of this on the landing page for this episode, but, I mean, you really did have to transition your entire operation to be, you know, basically under a tent, open Air, you know, due to COVID. Talk to us about making that pivot. And I mean, again, it sounds like you were closed for a period of time. But obviously reopening community court, you know, during COVID is, is a whole different ballgame. Any any advice, perspectives, stories from that experience, to share with our listeners?

Christopher Leonard  20:30

Sure. So during that time, providers, were continuing to engage individuals and services, though we didn’t have a community court site for them to come to. So individuals were still being referred, providers were still reaching out to participants and engaging them in services and housing them and, and those items, even when court wasn’t in session, as we looked at coming back to court and having court come back into session, we looked at options to do it in a building, we looked at options to do it, open air and to avoid delay, we went towards the open air concept where we would, where we would be able to, to safely have have and host court, we look at who needed to be on site, and who could appear virtually. And so when we, so and when I say we, the community court itself is is a collaborative. I mean in the city of Fort Lauderdale is the 17th Judicial Circuit Court. It’s the clerk of courts, the State Attorney’s Office, the public defender’s office, Fort Lauderdale Police, Broward Sheriff, and all the other providers. And so we started having some meetings to look to look at our options. And in the, city wise, we got together with fire, police, parks, and IT to look at what would be needed since since the city normally hosts what would be needed, what are options. And so we did decide to partner next to a COVID testing site because Broward County, for shelter at that time, you didn’t need an COVID test and other types of housing for like assisted living facilities and whatnot, they were requiring COVID testing. And so we wanted to make sure that that was not an additional barrier for this group.

Kirsten Wyatt  22:55

Right, right. Well, and talk about a multi jurisdictional, you know, cross departmental collaboration to try to, you know, make that type of shift.

Christopher Leonard  23:08

Yeah, it definitely was a team effort with all of the individuals in the community court network, but also internally at the city. And so really impressed how, how supportive, you know, external resources and internal resources were, and we were able to successfully have court from September through, through January. Well, through December, because we had our first community court back at the commission chambers, early this year, so January 6th, and today was our, and January 13th. was our second session and so we have transitioned back to the commission chambers. We are running the operation, very similar to how we did at the park with minimal, with a minimal number of individuals on site ensure safety and capacity to avoid issues there, but it’s, it’s going well. It is, you know, nice to be back under air conditioning. I think that it’s I think that it is more accessible for for the participants also. So the, also now that things are moving towards from, you know, there’s testing opportunities and also vaccination opportunities now coming, and so that original testing site actually turned to a vaccination site for the special groups that that the government’s vaccinating. 

Kirsten Wyatt  24:51

That’s great. So, I came across a quote, I think it was from one of your judges, who said the community court is a village and takes a village to raise a child. Tell us more about this concept and how you see that playing out in the Fort Lauderdale community.

Christopher Leonard  25:08

Sure, Judge Florence de Barner presides over community court and she has such a welcoming, such a welcoming and nice demeanor. And she engages individuals in a way that, that is just, provides a safe and exciting experience. She uses the phrase to explain and express the support and care of the community court network so that participants feel safe and understand that we are there to help. It’s often, it’s often for people experiencing homelessness to trust. And this is the judge’s way to convey the authenticity and intention of the network.

Kirsten Wyatt  26:01

That’s great. And and, you know, I think your explanation of how this is a combination of a court, but then also network of services and opportunities is a really helpful way to understand and, and visualize the role of the community court. We’ve had guests on Gov Love before, and we’ve definitely explored through ELGL, concepts about the criminalization of homelessness, and, you know, the belief that, you know, some of those basic life skills that people experiencing homelessness, do, you know, is is part of them trying to you know, stay alive and, and to stay healthy. It seems like a community chord is kind of that middle ground between straight up criminalization and then not doing anything at all. And you’re really trying to insert that human side, into your approach to people experiencing homelessness. Talk a little bit more about maybe how this concept came to be in Fort Lauderdale and and where do you think it might be headed.

Christopher Leonard  27:09

Sure. From my understanding, there was a high number of individuals that were not showing up to court and creating that perpetual cycle, warrants and other issues. Also, with the capacities of the jails, there were other, basically there’s issues there of, are these quality of life crimes? Are they just how are we getting to this to this point? And what other interventions can we do to engage this group, not just not just with a prison sentence or a harsh punishment, but what’s the root cause of the issues? I mean, taking a holistic approach to really addressing the needs of, of this group.

Kirsten Wyatt  28:02

That’s great. And I think, you know, it sounds like your background in social work, and indirect service prepared you well for, you know, this role in a local government to to work on these topics.

Christopher Leonard  28:18

Yes, I believe so also. In even the criminal justice aspect to understanding, understanding all parts. And with the, with the Social Work portion, I i understand the assessments and the engagement and the, the Parts that come together for, for really allowing for those changes to happen.

Kirsten Wyatt  28:51

I want to go a little bit off script, because I think that your story and your career path, are really meaningful and important to share, especially for our listeners, who perhaps have always thought about public service being in direct service. And so maybe have leaned toward working for a nonprofit. But But one thing we’re trying all the time through ELGL is to remind people is that local government provides direct service too and they work on some of the hardest issues in our communities, homelessness being one of them. Talk to us about any career advice you might give to somebody who wants to work in direct service, but hasn’t yet considered local government as a path for them.

Christopher Leonard  29:38

Yeah, so a little earlier when I was talking about kind of how my career had steered and I think that’s also how part of how I apply the vulnerability concept to, is just being open to opportunities as they come up. Just really having an open mind and so for me, most of the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But most of the time an opportunity came up. And the position that I’m in, I really feel like it is very, that that direct service experience serves, serves me well and also, but, but also this administrative aspect, it’s just a different, it’s just a different level. So when I think back to my mindset of when I was a case manager, and just started, I did want to see the other side. And now that I’m on the other side, I, it almost opens, like a higher level of understanding of when I was a case manager of the things I was trying to try, or the things I was told, and it just creates, it creates a multi dimensional professional experience, in my opinion. And I’m, you know, I’m so open, I think to opportunities, and even from here going forward, you know, I’m not sure where my career path may take me, but I definitely have an open mind. And I’m excited. And I know that the experience that I have to date is, is rich, in the way of, you know, I feel good about it, I feel like I can, I understand a lot about the world. And I think it was definitely from, from seeing both of those sides in the way of the direct service. And then when I initially came to the city with that housing program, we were doing monitoring and compliance of basically the program that I had been a case manager for. And now, which was, you know, almost like a pass through for governments or the the federal funds. Now where I’m at now, I was receiving federal funds and administering a program. And when you look at the levels of grants and program implementation, it’s, it’s definitely kind of like a three dimensional look when you’ve done the different parts. And so I definitely encourage individuals to have an open mind and to, to look at all of the parts that go into it, whether it’s inside of your agency outside of your agency, and because, you know, having having different types of experiences can really open up opportunities, even opportunities that you that you hadn’t imagined.

Kirsten Wyatt  32:57

I love that so much. And I think it’s such an important message for, again, especially people considering careers in public service, but even for people at any stage of their career, to really look at, you know, how do we how do we look at the work that we do, and the fact that we’re trying to work in service to others. And there are different ways to approach that, but when you can kind of see all sides. That’s when I think innovation and creativity and being able to, you know, really address some of these challenging issues, is something that, you know, then comes into play and is an option for you so, so thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate that. Tell me more about lessons learned so far. And so again, I know you didn’t, you know, you yourself set up community court in Fort Lauderdale. But with everything that you’ve experienced, and you’ve learned, share with our listeners, some of the best practices that they should be mindful of if their community is looking toward a more social service minded approach to addressing homelessness?

Christopher Leonard  34:04

Sure, the initial, the funder that initially funded this program, the center of court innovation, they actually developed a model that I believe provides the opportunity to establish a court with a strong foundation. They recently hosted a virtual conference that brought myself and other leaders who launched community courts together for a panel discussion to share experiences. And so this is a familiar concept. And really where I go with the answer to this is that it’s important to get a planning team together. And so best practices, local data, including crime data, court Data, completing stakeholder interviews, focus groups, community surveys, and all the other necessary needs assessment activities to ensure that the program is set up in a way that’s supported by evidence based practice and supports the needs of those who you’re looking to serve.

Kirsten Wyatt  35:06

And anything else you’d like to share with our listeners about your work, and especially now, given, you know that you’re doing all of this, and there’s a global pandemic going on.

Christopher Leonard  35:18

So, for all of those working in the pandemic, through the pandemic, you know, I applaud you, I am also, you know, also working through it and serving. And so congratulations, you know, for your hard work and good luck and just, just continue to, this is the time where we need to, to dig deep and to really make sure that, that we’re supporting the community and their needs. There’s a lot of needs, even more needs, you know, then then prior to COVID. And so, just continue to, to do your best and take the opportunities that will continue to serve the community.

Kirsten Wyatt  36:07

Wonderful. Well, Christopher, thank you so much for joining ELGL on Gov Love today. I do have to ask you our parting question. And that is, if you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for today’s episode?

Christopher Leonard  36:24

I’d say Tracy Chapman, Fast Car, a song of hope as she sings I imagine someone that sees opportunity in life, even as they’re struggling with real life problems and minimal resources. 

Kirsten Wyatt  36:40

Love it. Great answer. Great interview. Thank you again for spending time with me today. And thanks to our listeners for joining us and for learning from Christopher Leonard about the city of Fort Lauderdale’s community court program. Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. You can reach us at ElGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. Thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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