Disheveled and dirty, Dennis Teske looked every bit the man who had been homeless for the past 12 years when he first stood in front of Judge Marta Chou. During his time on the streets, the 44-year-old had been charged with more than 30 crimes related to being homeless, such as trespassing, drinking in public and loitering.
As Chou reviewed the most recent charges against him, she didn’t want to punish him. She wanted to offer him something that could change his life: a home.
This is Hennepin County’s HOMES court, which the district began in 2013 as one of the first in the country with a mission to end homelessness. The theory is that if the court can find homes for the people on its docket, it wouldn’t just help the homeless, but the larger community. The rationale: If the homeless have stable housing, there should be a reduction in their drug and alcohol abuse, crimes and cost to taxpayers.
So far that’s held true. The average number of arrests, days in jail and days in detox for the homeless who went through HOMES in 2015 (which stands for Housing Outreach for Minneapolitans Establishing Stability) was cut in half, according to Hennepin County data. Since 2014, HOMES court has saved about $315,000 total to taxpayers, the county estimates.
Chou said the court works because it pulls together prosecutors, defense attorneys and social workers who believe that sending the homeless to jail for petty crimes solves nothing. Instead, by working with HOMES the defendants can obtain housing and possibly see the charges dropped.
“You’re selling something people want,” Chou said. “People want basic human rights of safe and stable housing.”
As he stood in a courtroom filled with other homeless men and women, Chou looked down from her bench at Teske and told him her court could help him get a roof over his head.
For the first time, Teske had a judge who wasn’t hammering him. He had a quick reply.
“I remember telling her, ‘Yes ma’am,’” Teske said.
At 18, Teske enlisted in the Army National Guard, where he served for four years hoping to get financial aid to pay for college. But that didn’t pan out, so he moved to Minneapolis where he again hoped to enroll in school. When that failed and he was unable to get a job, he said he became homeless.
He started drinking. While living on the streets he started racking up misdemeanor charges, often called “livability crimes.” After brief jail stints and time at a workhouse, he’d go back to drinking.
He’d panhandle and hold up cardboard advertising his honesty. “I want money for alcohol,” the signs read. And when that led to more handouts, the resulting blackouts in alleys and stairways led to trips to emergency rooms and detox.
“I’ve probably been there at least 200 times,” he said.
Sometimes, he lived in filthy boardinghouses that were filled with rodents and roaches. After a while he couldn’t take it anymore. Three years ago, he decided to live outside full-time, where he’d sleep on even on the coldest winter days, surviving with up to five blankets underneath him and another 10 to 12 on top of him.
“On the street, you live for the now,” he said. “You live for the next day, the next hour.”
That would have continued if not for Teske’s latest string of petty crimes in 2016, which put him on the HOMES court docket.
The Minneapolis nonprofit St. Stephen’s Human Services started the idea for the court about 10 years ago to help the homeless who were being picked up on outstanding warrants for petty misdemeanors and thrown in jail. It proved to be so successful that the Hennepin County court district appointed a judge in 2013 to preside over a calendar of people facing misdemeanor crimes and struggling to find housing. What started with a docket of about 50 has quadrupled in three years, said Chou, who has led the court since the summer.
At Teske’s first hearing in front of Chou in June, she told him the court’s team of social workers and attorneys wanted to help him find an apartment and enter treatment. If he worked with them, the court could delay the charges he faced and potentially drop them. If he didn’t follow through, he’d have to go back to criminal court, where he’d face jail time.
Teske agreed, but as with many who are homeless and battling addiction, initially found it difficult to comply. In September, he got a ticket for having an open bottle and consuming in public. He still hadn’t worked to find a home. When he had to go in front of Chou again, she admonished him to comply with the court or face going back to jail.
“It’s a court of second chances, but we aren’t going to keep giving them time and time again,” she said.
Back at court
Teske rebounded. St. Stephen’s helped him find an apartment in a three-story brownstone, just south of downtown Minneapolis. It’s the first time Teske has ever lived in his own place, which is within walking distance of his treatment center. His coffee pot constantly brews “poor man’s speed,” as he puts it. “It’s the good stuff — from Caribou.” As a nod to his past on the streets, he sleeps with a stuffed polar bear next to his pillow.
He got a smartphone to stay in touch with his case workers, and keeps his apartment meticulously clean.
“I don’t want mice or cockroaches or bedbugs in here,” he said.
He still struggles with alcohol and is only able to stay sober for a week or two at a time. The apartment, he said, can replace what the alcohol provided him — an escape from his mental anguish.
But not always. And there are friends he has met on the streets who still want to drink with him. Trying to stay clear of bad influences isn’t easy.
“That’s the biggest issue,” he said. “I try to avoid them, but it’s not always easy. It’s getting colder. They don’t want to drink outside, risk getting a ticket.”
He takes pride in moments like a court hearing in early October, when it was time for him again to go in front of Chou.
“How are you, Mr. Teske?” she asked.
Teske reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a pair of keys. As he jingled them, the judge and the rest of the courtroom erupted in cheers.