Hamilton’s unique Empowerment Docket aims to help city’s homeless

Judge takes ‘What can we do to help you?’ approach.

Three years ago, Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Daniel Gattermeyer started a special docket that is believed to be the first of its kind.

At 10 a.m. on the second Wednesday of every month, the Hamilton judge hears cases in his Empowerment Docket which is for people charged with low-level crimes and are homeless. Though he doesn’t know how many people he’s actually helped ― he doesn’t keep a running total ― he’ll see about several people each month. As they go through the court process, they are also connected with service providers, who also attend these monthly hearings.

“Sometimes you don’t know if you’re helpful or not, but we are connecting them with service providers,” said Gattermeyer. “But we’ve had some really, really good success stories.”

The type of help ranges. Representatives from homeless shelters in the county attend, as well as those who assist people with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as the Butler County Metro Housing Authority.

For Alicia Sturm, she was able to connect with Sojourners for her problem with drugs.

Sturm, who had been in court multiple times over the years, was using methamphetamines when she was last arrested in December 2021, charged with drug abuse and possession of drug abuse instruments. She was living on the streets in Hamilton at the time of her arrest, and thought she was just going to be in court.

“I went in there, and they asked me about my housing, and I thought that was weird for court,” said the 36-year-old who grew up in Fairfield. After Gattermeyer explained she was in a different type of docket, and they were going to help her.

That was the turning point in her life, she said, calling the experience “uplifting.”

Sturm’s story is not unique. She began self-medicating when her knees started to hurt, and then it spiraled out of control as she distanced herself from family and friends to the point she became homeless.

“I had gone from being in the darkness, thinking that there was no way out to a new chapter in my life,” she said. I thought there was no way of getting out of the streets. No way of getting out of this cycle I was in.”

Now she embraces her family, boyfriend, and friends, keeping them close as she continues her recovery through Sojourners.

Sturm is one of those success stories of the Empowerment Docket, and Gattermeyer said he hopes they’re moving them on a little bit at a time so they can address their issues.

“For most people, it seems like housing isn’t their only issue,” the judge said. “But it’s like the first thing that we want to take care of. And we’re hoping that we can get their housing cleared up or straightened out so that we can address the other issues.”

Some of those other issues include substance abuse, criminal trespass or breaking and entering charges, or mental health.

The start of the Empowerment Docket started when Kathy Becker, who works for Access Counseling, did an overnight ride along with a Hamilton police officer three years ago. They were out at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and come across homeless people with warrants for minor charges, like criminal trespass. Becker said she and the officer agreed the system wasn’t working.

Becker joked about starting a homeless docket after rattling off all the other specialized dockets around, and they approached Gattermeyer about it.

He was all-in from the start.

“The judge is so empathetic and kind and takes the approach of ‘What can we do to help you?’ And that matters to people, to have a judge talk to you that way,” Becker said. “They’re very impressed and it gives them a sense that they’re important that a judge cares.”

And with the service agencies attending the monthly docket at 10 a.m every second Wednesday of the month, Becker said, “You’re making that direct contact at the most vulnerable time to say, ‘We care.’”

“To me, Judge Gattermeyer is the core to this, the foundation. Because this is unheard of,” she said. “It’s innovation.”

Gattermeyer hates the idea that people don’t have a place to live.

“I just cannot get it into my brain that some people think it’s okay to live in the woods,” he said. “And I see everybody walking around with their backpacks on and you feel like they got their worldly possessions walking around with them. I don’t see how, I don’t get how this is okay with anybody.”

Homelessness is a problem in many cities, and Gattermeyer, the service providers from around the region, and law enforcement are trying to be an “asset to the community” to address “a very difficult problem,” the judge said.

“There are no easy answers,” he said. “Ours is a sizeable problem that we feel like, ‘Let’s just take them one at a time and see what we can do.”

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