As Britny McCurdy recently pleaded “guilty” to a misdemeanor for the use or possession of drug paraphernalia, nothing about the scene evoked a typical courtroom.
A public defender had paddled up to the banks of McCurdy’s camp on the Jordan River in a canoe moments before, asking if she had any outstanding cases that needed to be resolved. After accepting the offer, she proceeded to hear legal advice while sitting on a milk crate in a pair of jean shorts and sneakers, her blond hair pulled up in a tidy ponytail and a small green tent spread out behind her.
Then, Salt Lake City Justice Court Judge Jeanne Robison paddled over for sentencing.
McCurdy, who is currently experiencing homelessness, said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune afterward that she struggled even more than usual to access the justice system when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the courts. She thought this particular case had already been taken care of, she said.
Handling that charge at the river that day — without the need to navigate transportation or meet a particular dress code — was easier and “less intimidating” than doing so in a typical courtroom, McCurdy said.
“We’re grateful they came to us,” she added.
The Tribune paddled along July 16 for the third voyage of Salt Lake City Justice Court’s new “kayak court,” an effort to offer legal help to people experiencing homelessness who are living in entrenched encampments along the Jordan River in the state’s capital. Between the legal team that pushed off on canoes that Friday and another that went out on bikes, 14 people had 17 cases heard.
The out-of-the-box idea came to Robison earlier this year as she kayaked down the river with a friend who does homeless outreach. The friend joked that it was too bad the judge couldn’t just take care of people’s cases while on the river.
“And then we got to thinking about it,” Robison said. “We knew there were encampments on the river. We were already doing homeless outreach. And then we came up with this crazy idea.”
With the help of several partners — including the Jordan River Commission, which provides the kayaks and canoes; GREENbike, which offered up its bikes for the voyages; and outreach teams from Salt Lake City and Volunteers of America — they were able to take court to the river for the first time in May.
‘Meet people where they’re at’
On the team’s first voyage, some people in the camps were skeptical, said Michelle Hoon, project and policy manager with Salt Lake City’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team.
“They didn’t really know what was going on,” she said with a laugh. “You come up in a boat and say, ‘Hey, I can fix your warrants for you,’ and they’d say, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so.’”
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who also is an attorney and acted as McCurdy’s legal counsel, said many people they approached seemed afraid that the flotilla was simply there to arrest them. But the team was able to help a few people and has had more success since as word “trickled down the river” to other people experiencing homelessness, she said.
Many who live along the river now recognize it as a way to make the challenging legal process a little less onerous — especially because even nonviolent misdemeanors, if ignored, can lead to arrest warrants that serve as barriers to accessing services and housing and to landing jobs.
“The more that people trust that we’re not here to get you arrested, but we’re here to try to help so that you feel more comfortable and have more access to resources,” Fowler said, “then the better.”
As part of that effort to build trust, the teams in kayak court approach slowly — and never all at once.
Kim Russo, the outreach worker who helped Robison come up with the idea, takes the lead, asking if people need help with legal cases or anything else. If they express interest, the legal defense team will float up, followed by the boat with the judge. If the campers decline, the legal teams keep paddling.
Whether they take advantage of it or not, it’s important that people have the opportunity because while navigating the legal system can be difficult — even for people who have the ability to hire their own attorneys — it’s much harder for people without good access to the internet, transportation and other resources, Hoon noted.
Everything is “about 100 times harder when you’re homeless,” she said.
“They’re just facing so many more barriers than the rest of us,” Hoon added. “It’s significantly harder when you are experiencing severe and persistent mental illness, when you have no ride to places, things like that.”
And it can be easy for people to get caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.
“So if we catch them at the right time, when they’re at a place where they’re trying to move toward self-sufficiency but can’t because of these outstanding cases or outstanding warrants,” Robison said, " our ability to help them take care of it can remove those barriers.”
The Jordan River effort also has a value to the courts, said Hoon, who noted that the judicial system has been backed up after coronavirus-related closures — and that any case that can be addressed helps ease that burden.
“We can let our court dockets back up like crazy with people who are unable to make it to court,” she said, “or we can try and meet people where they’re at and get them through the system and get them the help they need.”
‘Good stewards of the environment’
As they floated down the river, the teams passed old soda cans and water bottles bobbing on top of the water and overturned shopping carts and rusty bikes poking out from underneath the surface.
While the primary objective of kayak court is to help people experiencing homelessness address their legal challenges, the teams help with other needs, too, passing out food and hygiene kits and providing information about homeless services.
On this Friday, in an effort to address the Jordan River’s persistent problem of trash, the group added another component: river cleanup.
The lead boats and bikes handed out black garbage bags to the camps, and asked people experiencing homelessness to pick up any litter or waste in their areas and be “good stewards of the environment,” as organizer Allison Dupler, from the city’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team, put it.
A team from Salt Lake City’s public lands department then came up behind to pick up the trash bags and carry them out.
Several people on the voyage also made an effort to pick up the larger pieces of waste. Dupler, for example, nearly fell in the river as she worked to pull an old bike out of its shallow depths. She also carried out several needles, stowing them safely away in a sharps container.
Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, notes that the waterway has acted as a safe haven for thousands of years, with Indigenous people settling along its banks long before Salt Lake City was established.
And he said he’s sympathetic to the reasons that have driven many individuals experiencing homelessness to the river — particularly as reluctance to stay in one of Salt Lake County’s homeless shelters increased during the pandemic, with many people hesitant to live in a congregate setting where the disease could spread rapidly.
“It’s a place for sustenance,” he said of the river in a separate interview. “So it’s not surprising that when people are looking for a place to reside, when they have no other options, the river offers some refuge.”
But he said the organization is concerned about the host of public health, environmental and safety concerns encampments bring.
And it’s an issue that has emerged as a primary concern for people who live around and recreate at the waterway, with police patrols and homeless encampment cleanups ranking as the most important river-related program in a recent survey of roughly 8,000 Wasatch Front residents.
“There is a lot of drug activity going on around the river. There are people bathing in the river and defecating in the river, and so those raise E. coli [bacteria] levels,” Simonsen said. “Somebody trying to fish or swim or bathe, which includes a lot of the homeless population, puts their lives at risk by being in the water because of the impact from homelessness.”
In addition to human waste and litter that can contaminate the river, campfires can pose a fire risk and the trampling of native plants can impact wildlife, said Salt Lake County Health Department spokesperson Nicholas Rupp.
Not all of these impacts are from people experiencing homelessness, to be sure, as countless numbers of people in the county recreate along some portion of the waterway each day.
Most feces in the river, for example, can be attributed to careless dog owners who don’t pick up after their pets, according to information from the Department of Environmental Quality — and people litter regardless of their housing status.
But the presence of people who call the Jordan River their semipermanent home definitely has an impact, Rupp said.
“While we don’t want someone camping anywhere,” he said, “if it’s someone that doesn’t want to camp in an urban area, away from the river is preferable.”
Simonsen said he sees kayak court as one of the innovative ideas that Salt Lake Valley leaders and service providers are testing as they seek to clear away barriers to leaving homelessness.
And he expressed excitement about the opportunity to pass out trash bags and other hygiene supplies to help campers pick up along the riverbanks where they’ve taken shelter.
“We’re hoping to kind of bring it full circle and involve individuals with being stewards in their own right,” he said. “When they’ve taken something from the river as a place to live and left behind a footprint, we’re hoping to help people realize that impact and take some steps to restore it afterward.”
The justice court plans to continue kayak court once a month along the Jordan River until October, Robison said, in a continued effort to address the myriad issues affecting the people who live on the river and the waterway itself.
And while advocates say they can’t speak to whether other cities that have encampments along their sections of the river should follow suit, Dupler said she hopes others will look at this effort and feel compelled to innovate with the way they provide services to this vulnerable community.
“I just hope that if other people see this, it at least gives them permission or a spark to dream,” she said, “about how to do something different or creative within a system that’s not necessarily built for creativity.”
— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report