Robert Johnson is currently homeless in Los Angeles. A prior misdemeanor conviction has complicated his ability to secure steady employment, and housing.

When a legal clinic on Skid Row intended to help unsheltered people clear criminal records that complicate access to housing and other public services, Robert Johnson was one of the about 40 people who showed up.

Johnson, a white man who wore a black coat and gloves for remote court hearing, is currently homeless. He’s living on the street near downtown Los Angeles. While he is eager to move indoors and engage in the homeless services system, his misdemeanor criminal record has proven a barrier that blocks him from accessing homeless and permanent housing services in LA County.

In recent years, several voter-approved ballot measures and other legislative actions have reclassified and even eliminated certain criminal offenses. But actually removing a prior conviction from a criminal record isn’t automatic, even if it has technically been reclassified. It still requires a person to navigate the judicial process to have their prior conviction officially cleared. 

Johnson has a misdemeanor for petty theft eligible for expungement. When he learned at a legal workshop that his prior conviction could potentially be cleared if he attended an expungement hearing at Skid Row’s ReFresh Spot, he made sure to show up, pulling with him two suitcases and a few plastic bags with his belongings.

The springtime clinic Johnson attended is part of a broader effort to mitigate some of the barriers unhoused Angelenos must overcome to access housing. Simply ‘wanting’ help isn’t enough; the presence of a criminal record—felonies and misdemeanors—complicates the already arduous process of certification for access public social services.

Community Outreach Court runs every third Thursday of the month at the ReFresh Spot. It’s an attempt at a low-barrier entry point where unhoused Angelenos living on Skid Row can start the process of expungement. This means clearing or sealing prior criminal records. Even if the offenses occurred decades ago, the presence of a criminal record may haunt someone in the form of barriers to employment, housing, and social services.

Community Outreach Court is coordinated by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office, the county’s Alternate Public Defender’s office and the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Community Safety.

It enables unhoused Angelenos to start the process of clearing certain misdemeanor cases and citations, expunging convictions, and undoing eligible bench warrants with guidance from paralegals and attorneys.

“It gives me a little hope that things are coming back on track,” said Johnson. “That is what I am trying to do.”

Johnson said he does not have relatives in Los Angeles, and has been unable to afford shelter because employers balk at his record.

At the clinic, Johnson was able to set an October court date to complete his expungement. Standing before Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Karin Borzokian, Johnson affirmed his commitment to avoiding justice system involvement. Any potential contact with the criminal justice system could undo his effort to clear his record prior to the court hearing date.

Unhoused folks with negative records “can get the help they need,” said Johnson. “I think this is a very good program.”

Along with public legal agencies, the clinics are supported by other public and nonprofit agencies that can help unhoused Angelenos navigate the often-complicated application and certification processes for public benefits. This includes filing applications for Medi-Cal, CalFresh, county general relief, and other health and social services tailored for individual needs.

The ReFresh Spot on Skid Row, where Community Outreach Court is held every third-Thursday of the month. (Alfredo Santana)

“We can help folks connect with the appropriate outreach team that does serve the geographic area,” said Ryan Worrall, of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “When someone comes to the table, they look to see if they are connected to housing services. If they are not, then we start the process to connect them.”

Elanee Jarrett with the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition addressed questions from 10 people before the clinic wrapped.

“We know there is a barrier to find a space [in housing],” said Jarrett, who added her organization offers mentoring, financial literacy, job training, and other post-carceral services to minimize the chances of future convictions.

“Our team tries to find them support levels after they have been released.”

In Los Angeles County, hundreds of thousands of people have previous convictions eligible for expungement. The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office estimates more than 200,000 people have cannabis-related offenses that are eligible for expungement or reduction alone.

That’s because of voter approved Proposition 64, which reduced criminal penalties for specific marijuana offenses for adults and juveniles, and permits resentencing and sealing of convictions related to possession, sales and consumption.

Other voter approved measures, including Proposition 47 in 2014, and Proposition 36, open similar doors for case dismissals for certain non-violent offenses.

Los Angeles County Head Deputy Public Defender Marcus Huntley said most of the 20 expungement cases in the day’s docket dealt with misdemeanors.

Huntley said many folks have records for crimes such as trespassing to get cell phones charged, or finding cover to sleep in safer places.

“We present chances to give them room to reform and new opportunities in life,” said Huntley. “We are able to get them services they may not [be aware of] or know.”

Huntley said last quarter the mobile expungement unit assisted 300 folks interested to file court requests to either reduce crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, or to qualify for diversion.

These reductions enable people with prior records to apply and be considered for jobs, apply for housing, get driver’s licenses, restore their right to vote, and for college financial aid.

Also in the mix is legislation in effect since July of 2023 stemming from SB 731. That relatively new law allows judges to grant expungements at their discretion to individuals who are not in probation or parole, have no warrants, are not registered as sex offenders or have pending cases.

Before SB 731 was enacted, “if you had a strike, or if you went to prison, or if you failed on probation, you couldn’t get your record expunged,” said LA County Public Defender George Turner Jr.

SB 731 also requires the state’s Department of Justice to expunge misdemeanors or low-level felonies seven years old or older, and from individuals who have successfully completed probation and have not picked up anything new.

However, the law did not give the Department of Justice money to process automatic expungements, and the agency does not have resources to make good on hundreds of thousands of cases eligible for relief, said Turner Jr.

Turner Jr., who is running for Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Seat 39, said he has never filed a criminal case, and there are several options prosecutors should consider on misdemeanors to improve the offenders’ “quality of life,” particularly on cases eligible for record sealing, to avoid involving the courts.

But for many, when you’re living on the street, navigating the various hoops to achieve expungement simply falls down the list. Johnson was one of about 40 people who arrived at the ReFresh Spot on that particular April morning. But many of the about people who made their way to the ReFresh Spot had in mind to find service providers able to get them housed.

Myeshia Brown was one of them.

Brown said she lost her rented apartment in 2013, regained a unit before the pandemic, but now is homeless again. 

Social service agencies and others ready to assist navigating LA’s complicated web of homeless and other social services. (Alfredo Santana)

She has no criminal record, and stopped by to speak with two representatives from The Salvation Army. They had water bottles and two laptops set on a table at the curb, and tried to link her to an agency running tiny home near Highland Park.

Brown, a real estate agent, said she was displaced after her former landlord sold a multi-apartment building in Los Angeles, and the new owners evicted her along with dozens of tenants.

“I’ve been here to sign up for the waiting list, but there have been no matches” to permanent housing, said Brown before heading to speak with other services providers. “I get my mail at different shelters.”

Even without a record, a missed letter can be the difference between accessing services, or remaining in a byzantine purgatory where one qualifies for public assistance that you cannot access because the right form wasn’t submitted in the right way at the right time.

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