By Melissa Hellmann
William became homeless about two years ago when his heroin addiction overtook his life. Last summer, two passing police officers found him and his girlfriend sitting in an alleyway in the International District. They ran his name through the system. He’d been in trouble with the law before, but William thought that his prior warrants had been resolved. “The next thing I know … they’re putting cuffs on me and saying, ‘you’ve got an outstanding warrant for not appearing in court,’ ” William, 46, says now in a raspy, squeaky voice.
The warrant was issued after William failed to attend the court-ordered Community Center for Alternative Programs, a program that offers offenders rehabilitative services. William said that prior to being arrested, he checked his mail regularly at the Compass Housing Alliance—an organization that provides mailing services for more than 2,000 people, most of whom are homeless—but that he never received notices to appear in court. He was perplexed.
“After you get arrested you’ve got bigger things to worry [about] than why you didn’t get some letter in the mail. You know what I mean?” Williams says. “That’s the last thing on your plate,” he added while periodically sipping on a cup of hot chocolate.
At the time, William thought it was simply a “clerical error” that would get sorted out, but he ended up in King County Jail for 12 days and racked up fines that put a greater strain on his limited finances. He says that his relationship and emotional health both suffered as a result.
William’s predicament is a common one for Seattle’s homeless. The Seattle Municipal Court’s staff and Public defenders say that many of the 9,794 defendants who currently have outstanding warrants lack permanent addresses because they’re homeless. As a result, many are unaware that they have been ordered to appear in court. As of December 2017, failure to appear for pre-trial hearings was listed as the top reason for the issuance of outstanding warrants, according to Seattle Municipal Court data acquired by Seattle Weekly. The court does not track housing status, so it is unable to confirm how many of them were homeless.