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In Fort Lauderdale, a courtroom without judgment

Community court helps connect vulnerable people with needed services

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Every Wednesday, the 17th District Community Court of Fort Lauderdale sets up proceedings at City Hall.

People who are issued city citations such as trespassing or open container charges can be processed there. It is Florida's first community court and it was launched in January to help break the cycle of homeless people from the streets to jail.

"It was the baby of Chief Judge Jack Tuter," said Jahra McLawrence, a private attorney who also works for the Public Defender's Office. "This court operates to stop the revolving door of the cycle of incarceration for petty offenses."

McLawrence regularly defends homeless clients.

A few weeks ago, he met Ray Daoke, who was living behind a bus bench on Broward Boulevard. Daoke, who has mental health issues, told him that he had a family once, was originally from Guyana and was a military veteran.

McLawrence decided to post a picture of Daoke on Facebook in an effort to reconnect him with family. The post was shared hundreds of times. Two days later, his children and their mother were headed to Fort Lauderdale; they hadn't seen him since last year.

Veronique Robinson is so thankful that her loved one is getting the help he needs.

"It's not their fault what's happening to him, he is sick," Robinson said.

Daoke and other defendants have the option to get help for mental health issues, addiction, housing and much more during the court proceedings. In return, defendants must complete court ordered services and 10 hours of community service.

Kevin Yard has finished his commitment to the court and returned this week to thank the court for changing his life after nine years sleeping on the streets.

"It can be done. If I can do it, they can do it," Yard said.

Yard now has a sponsor in a 12-step program, a job and a place to live. He said community court helped him get back his identification cards so he could get a job and now is on his way to a new life off the streets.

The atmosphere at community court can be described as nonjudgmental. On both sides of the room, there are tables of service agencies set up. There are, for example, housing services and addiction-treatment resources.

Greg Young of the Backpack Barber Foundation is there as well, offering haircuts and support. Young once battled addition and homeless, as well.

"It's a passion for me. Coming up on six years, I got sobriety and I want to give back," Young said.

Community Court is held every Wednesday. Anyone who needs help is welcome to walk in.