TAMPA — Julio Lebron was a teenager when he left Delaware and headed south to escape gangs and his own past.
“I told my mom, ‘Mom, I gotta go,’” Lebron, 22, said.
He arrived in Tampa with no friends or family, little money and fewer prospects. He bounced from one homeless charity to another.
He landed a job as a janitor at Raymond James Stadium but lost it because he didn’t have a state ID card. He took up panhandling.
A Tampa police officer eventually ticketed him for violating the city’s ordinance against panhandling on city streets during the week.
That violation recently landed him in front of Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge James Dominguez, who gave the young man 30 days to start putting his life back on track.
Since last fall, Tampa’s efforts to address homelessness have coalesced in Dominguez’ court the second Wednesday of each month.
Dominguez, who retires at the end of this month, oversees one of two dockets created last fall to speed up enforcement of city code violations. Dominguez handles cases that could land the violators in jail. Judge Dick Greco Jr. will take over for him in April.
When the docket was created last year, Mayor Bob Buckhorn touted it as a way to bring the city’s worst landlords to heel. Few landlords have been brought to court, though. Instead, each month’s court calendar is packed with dozens of homeless people ticketed for breaking city rules against panhandling, public drinking, camping in city parks and the like.
Some see the process as evidence the city has failed in how it deals with the homeless.
Marie Marino, an attorney with the public defender’s office, said the court docket is part of the process of criminalizing homelessness.
“It’s a shame we have to get to this point,” she said.
The public defender’s office keeps attorneys on hand during the code court to help defendants, who typically come alone to see the judge.
But even critics of the city’s approach to homelessness say the new docket has created an opportunity that didn’t exist before to connect people who need help with the agencies that can provide it.
“There’s going to be a range of opinion on the laws that you’re speaking of from one extreme to another,” said Lesa Weigel, spokeswoman for the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. “For us, it’s really brought more awareness of the issue and coordination to work together on the issue.”
Buckhorn objects to the suggestion that the city has created, essentially, a homeless court.
“Quality of life court,” he said, offering his view of the proceedings. “It deals in a very holistic fashion with quality-of-life issues, whether its code violations or public urination.”
One recent Wednesday, nearly 50 people filled the gallery of Courtroom 20 at the Edgecomb Courthouse. They were a range of ages and races and genders. Some were in their 20s, others in their 50s. Some appeared older. Most were men.
In what is normally the jury box, another seven men and two women sat chained together and wearing jail-issue orange jumpsuits. They had been arrested for more serious offenses after getting a ticket for violating the city code.
As he does each month, city prosecutor Mike Schmid laid out the situation before court started.
“We can offer you assistance in some form, even if it’s with getting IDs or a Social Security card,” he told the group. “We would like to see some of you actually seek services.”
Also sitting in the gallery were several staff members of Gracepoint, formerly Mental Health Care, a nonprofit agency that caters to the city’s homeless population.
All anyone had to do to get help: Ask for it.
Do that, Schmid told the crowd, and the judge will delay action on your charges for 30 days. Come back a month later with no new charges and a sign that you’re trying to improve your situation and the judge might drop the charges altogether.
“One thing we cannot absolutely do for you is find housing,” Schmid said. “But we’d like to try.”
One by one, each person stood and faced Dominguez.
On this day, a few accepted help. Most did not.
“Are you interested in the program?” Dominguez asked 24-year-old Brandon Evans, charged with panhandling at Armenia and Waters avenues.
“No, sir,” said Evans, who has lived on the streets for seven years.
“If you’re back at Armenia soliciting, the Tampa police might not give you a second chance,” Dominguez said in the tone of an exasperated father.
Evans promised to stay out of trouble before pleading guilty and turning to leave.
Until last fall, code violations were mixed among misdemeanor crimes and spread across five courtrooms. Violators were on their own. Service providers weren’t available in the courts.
“It was unwieldy,” Dominguez said.
It was also a catch-and-release system that sent homeless people to jail for days or weeks only to release them back onto the same streets – often empty-handed and without help – when their time was up. In short order, many would end up back in court and back in jail.
“You’ve got to have some alternative,” Dominguez said in an interview after a court session. “A number of these folks are veterans. There are services they’re entitled to, but they never stay in one place long enough to follow through.”
For his part, Dominguez, who started out as a social worker, treats each person standing before him with the patience usually reserved for a wayward son or daughter.
“How are you doing this afternoon?” he asked Michael Kirkland, 51, last week.
“I could be doing worse,” said Kirkland.
“What’d you have for lunch?”
Kirkland had been ticketed for entering a vacant, foreclosed house.
“Looking for a place to sleep, obviously,” Dominguez said.
“I was sleeping, your honor,” Kirkland said, prompting a round of laughter in the room.
Kirkland, too, passed up the court’s offer of help.
“I don’t know,” he said after leaving court. “I’m not sure I’m ready yet.”
Some social service workers see the new docket creating a way to address the problems that may be causing someone to be homeless in the first place.
“Any opportunities that we can provide clients access to care, that’s beneficial,” said Chris Spall, a counselor with Gracepoint. “A lot of them don’t know how many resources there are available in the community.”
But no one can force people to accept help, said Weigel, from the Homeless Initiative.
“It’s going to take some time, especially for someone who’s been homeless for a long time, to have faith in the system,” she said. The trick is to be ready for them when they decide to accept help, she said.
For some, that second appearance in Dominguez’s court has become an important incentive to pull themselves together, Jennifer Elve, a Gracepoint case manager.
“It helps them be accountable to something,” Elve said.
Lebron was one of those being held accountable. He had passed through Dominguez’s court in January after being ticketed for panhandling in Tampa Heights.
Lebron said he came to Tampa several years ago from Delaware to escape a gang life.
At the court date in January, Dominguez gave Lebron 30 days to connect with Gracepoint and start straightening out his life. His girlfriend moved down from Delaware last month and the two are living in an apartment in North Tampa.
In February, Lebron returned to court, and Dominguez dropped the charges.
Lebron now is enrolled in culinary classes at Metropolitan Ministries and hopes to become a sous chef.
Miranda Collette, Lebron’s counselor at Gracepoint said he is turning his life around.
“He’s not OK with sleeping on the streets,” she said. “He used to be.”