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Program helps homeless reintegrate into society

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In August, Cameron Hakin packed up his life in Oregon and left his job as a preschool teacher to move to Albuquerque, where he could finally be with his long-distance fiancee. By November, he was homeless, had frostbite on his feet and no possessions.

Cameron Hakin, center, talks to Metropolitan Court Judge Kenny Montoya about his experience in Outreach Court. Looking on are prosecutor John Duran and attorney Marcella Neville. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Hakin was one of three people to graduate Thursday from Metropolitan Court’s Outreach Program, which helps homeless defendants work through their low-level, nonviolent charges while connecting them with providers that offer necessities like health care, counseling and housing. At graduation, participants see their criminal charges dismissed; their warrants are often canceled earlier on in the program.

In Hakin’s case, a five-year-old ticket for parking too close to a fire hydrant had escalated into a warrant.

“There was a warrant, so he couldn’t get an ID, he couldn’t get housing and he couldn’t get a job,” said Marcella Neville, an attorney who volunteers her time to represent Outreach Court participants.

Hakin learned only after moving back to Albuquerque that his fiancee was using meth, and the relationship crumbled. He said she kicked him out in November, shortly after he told her mother about her addiction.

“She said, ‘Come back with the police if you want your stuff,’ I had these warrants, so I was afraid,” Hakin said during the hearing. “I didn’t feel like I was in a position to report that, or to get my stuff back.”

That night, he said, he got frostbite on all of his toes.

Hakin was referred to Outreach Court by a caseworker at a men’s shelter. The warrant was canceled, and now he has a permanent home. On Thursday, the case was dismissed by a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office.

Judges can also refer defendants to the program, and those who are eligible can self-refer.

Joe Marquez, Outreach Court liaison, said hearings take place once a month, but in between, he works with participants to find services that they need. Crimes that most often turn up in Outreach Court, Marquez said, are related to homelessness or drug use: low-level shoplifting, criminal trespassing, sleeping in a park.

He said the program works differently for each participant. They’re asked to maintain contact with Marquez, but other than that, the mission is simply to set people up with the resources they need most. Some people even ask to delay their graduation just because they appreciate the support.

“We haven’t had anyone who has just come and asked to graduate just to get (a case) dismissed,” he said. “It’s helping them out.”

At Thursday’s ceremony, held in an unintimidating classrooom filled with folding tables and chairs, after each participant’s case was dismissed, he or she was presented with a certificate and a bus pass. Everyone involved took turns praising each participant’s progress.

Judge Kenny Montoya said he’s hoping to see more people involved in Outreach Court in coming months, partially thanks to financial help from the city. He wants monthly graduations, which now average about four people, to grow to around 15 a month. Without intervention and resources, criminal behavior can escalate.

“I’d like judges to start looking at them and say, ‘Let’s switch you over to Outreach Court,'” he said. “Make them a better person for the community.”

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