City of Myrtle Beach may create "homeless court"

Myrtle Beach city leaders will discuss creating a homeless court to help get homeless people of the streets and prevent crime at the city council meeting on Tuesday.

Instead of receiving a fine or jail time, homeless people charged with non-violent crimes would have the option to enter a diversion program. They would work with the New Directions shelters and the local court system to enter the necessary program. If they successfully complete it, their charges could be expunged.

"We have a fair number of folks who are repeat visitors, if you will. We wanted to do something other than just write them another ticket, write them another fine or have them visit our jail," said city spokesperson, Mark Kruea. 

New Directions Executive Director Kathie Jenkins said homeless court would help repeat offenders get to the root of the problem, to stop the cycle of crime.

"What is the underlying issue. Why is somebody shoplifting? Why is somebody being arrested for public intox[ication] multiple times?," Jenkins said.

According to Jenkins, those underlying problems are often substance abuse and mental illness. 

"Often times that itself is an obstacle for them to get jobs or for them to get back on their feet," she said.

Jenkins sat in on a homeless court session in Columbia, which is one of the cities that inspired Myrtle Beach leaders to pursue the program. She said she spoke with presiding judge there who said the program had an extremely low rate of recidivism.

"The community as a whole will see some benefits because that person will no longer be a burden to the system," said Kruea.

Jenkin estimates that burden to be about $20,000-$40,000 per homeless person. Last year, New Directions helped more than 400 people at one shelter.

"If we can help them find permanent solutions and make sure that they stay of the streets it does everything for our community," said Jenkins.

If city council decides to move forward with creating a homeless court, it will first have to petition the South Carolina Supreme Court to do so. Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough LLP has agreed to file the petition pro bono.

If approved, Kruea said he expects homeless court to start in June.

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