How Does Restorative Justice Interact with Homelessness and Mental Illness?

  • Type of process: Community Group Conference
  • Conference Participants:
    • Offender –Joseph (64)
    • 2 Facilitators
    • 2 Community Members
    • 1 Police Officer (Officer Johnson)
  • Criminal Charges Pending: Fourth degree arson
  • Referring agent: Police Department

 Factual Synopsis: A 64-year-old homeless man was cooking on a makeshift stove in a trailer he was squatting in and accidentally started a fire, causing major damage to the structure.

Narrative:

Joseph had been living in an abandoned trailer a few miles out of town for long enough to consider the property home. He was squatting on the land, but had constructed a tent and blankets for sleeping inside the trailer and had settled there, unpacking his few possessions and developing routines. During our intake conversation, Joseph described how much he loved the forest and nature surrounding the trailer. He described how he would lean down as he walked to brush the grass back up where his footsteps flattened it so that it could reach the sun.

Joseph had been in a bad accident a few years before. He had been hit by a car on the main street of downtown and was in a coma for 30 days before waking up. The injuries he endured have resulted in long-term pain and discomfort in his body in part due to the metal used to reconstruct his bones. Joseph described that on cold nights he will try to find a place for the night near a business with an outdoor outlet so that he can plug in his hair dryer to heat up the metal in his arms and legs. When the metal is cold, it is painful.

In describing the accident and the time he spent in a coma, Joseph explained that he died and went to hell. He explained in great detail his journey through hell and his resulting commitment to live for God and Jesus. He expressed that often people do not want to listen to him, and that he was grateful the co-facilitator and I would listen. He said he thought we were good people.

Joseph described himself as thinking a bit differently from other people. Through his caseworker, he was medicated for mental illness. He also has a history of drug addiction, but claimed to have it under control and expressed frustration that he was not being given adequate pain medication due to the history of addiction. In our intake and pre-conference meetings, Joseph would ramble and jumped from topic to topic. It was clear that the conference would be a facilitation challenge and the co-facilitator and I were mindful in our selection of community members who would have compassion for the special circumstances of the case and would be able to show patience and creativity in suggesting contract items that would be achievable for Joseph. We also developed hand motions with Joseph that would be a silent reminder to re-focus or to avoid interrupting others.

When we gathered for the conference, Joseph began by telling the story of what happened. He described how he was trying to heat up a tortilla and cheese using alcohol in a can as a stove. He mentioned that this is a cooking method he uses frequently and he hasn’t had any problems with it before. This time, he left for a minute to go urinate outside and when he returned, his entire bed area was up in flames. Joseph tried to put out the fire and the heat burned his hands and arms. He showed the group where the blisters were still healing. Quickly he realized he wouldn’t be able to put out the fire without help and left the trailer and went down the road to find someone to call the fire department. Joseph stuck around as the fire department arrived and he took full responsibility for what happened. The trailer was badly burned, but the police were ultimately unable to contact the property owner. Joseph expressed how relieved he was that the fire did not reach the surrounding woods and that no one was hurt. Joseph talked about how the trailer and property were affected and about how the community could be scared by the fire. He also talked about the impact on himself. Joseph lost his home through this ordeal. He said that since this happened, he has been staying at the shelters and not eating as well and that he had lost a lot of weight.

The community members and police officer listened carefully as Joseph shared his story. Their faces showed compassion and understanding. I noticed Joseph’s confidence and willingness to share increase as he watched their reactions. When Officer Johnson and the two community members spoke, they expressed the harms experienced by the community and the weight placed on the police force, but also expressed admiration of Joseph for calling for help and staying at the scene. When the co-facilitator shared Joseph’s assets and described him as a big thinker who is always dreaming up new ideas and noticing the world around him, Joseph lit up.

Joseph spends a lot of time at the local homeless shelter and food kitchen. The center also has a downstairs area where a nonprofit organization runs a program that addresses mental health issues through creativity and art. The program provides free materials and accepts drop-ins. As part of Joseph’s contract, the group agreed that Joseph would go to that program and create one art piece to help him process the event and another art piece that would be a poster with information about fire safety. Joseph would bring the poster to our restorative justice organization and we would make copies that would be hung up at the police station and the homeless shelter. The hope was that this information would be helpful to other homeless people who may be using similar stoves. Some of the suggestions Joseph had were to cook in an open space and keep a bag of flour handy to extinguish the flame. The contract item did not challenge the reality that homeless people may need to cook in that way. Instead, it provided a solution for how safety information could be disseminated, thus decreasing the chance of another dangerous accident and repairing some of the harm to the community. Joseph also wanted to do something to make the community more beautiful and decided he wanted to spend some time picking up trash around town. Officer Johnson offered to go with Joseph to verify that he was completing the hours. This also gave Officer Johnson a way to continue to check in with Joseph to see how he is doing.

When the conference ended, everyone stuck around to continue chatting for a while. We talked about music and ate snacks together. Joseph happily shook hands with both community members and Officer Johnson, expressing his gratitude and gave the co-facilitator and I a hug. It was clear that Joseph felt seen and accepted by the group and pleased with the outcome of the conference.

When Officer Johnson referred the case to Restorative Justice, he said he knew that if Joseph went to prison for this, he wouldn’t survive. He wanted to find a way for Joseph to see the impacts and danger of his the fire while staying part of the community and connected to the resources he relies on in town. When people living in poverty or with mental health issues are imprisoned, they are separated from much needed resources in the community. Furthermore, the complicating issues of homelessness and mental health are rarely, if ever, addressed in the court system. The punishment outcome is the same regardless of the individual person, story or circumstances. Through handling Joseph’s case with the restorative justice method, Joseph was further integrated into the community through positive social interaction and exposure to additional helpful resources rather than being further separated and ostracized from the community through detainment.

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