Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 14th court hearing - a report

To the more than 70 people who attended yesterday's court hearing - thank you.  Your presence has a positive impact upon the court.  It demonstrates the interest and commitment people have towards ending homelessness.

Thank you, too, to APP's Erik Larsen for attending and reporting on what happened.  The article can be found in today's Asbury Park Press.  Here is a link to the article on the Internet:

The following is a report from attorney Jeff Wild, summing up his impressions of what occurred at the hearing:

We had another very good day today in the litigation.  However, there will be a major hearing in court on Friday, April 29th at 10 a.m., which as many of you as possible should please attend.  Here are the details:
            1.         Standing Together With the Homeless.  The turnout today was fabulous, only because of all of you.  Courtroom 1 -- already the largest in the County -- was so filled with members of our Coalition and other members of the public that Judge Grasso said he would have to think about what to do if the numbers attending continued to increase.  As the judge walked into the court room, he saw, for example, many homeless individuals looking to him for help; many members of the clergy (some obvious because of their clerical clothing); and many members of secular organizations (like Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, STEPS and H.E.L.P.), as well as representatives of the media.  For one of the few times in New Jersey history, the proceedings in this civil case were captured on film by a media representative (Kalim Armstrong and his documentary film crew).  Again, this only happened because so many of you made it clear to Judge Grasso that the public cares deeply about the problem of homelessness and is standing together with the homeless.
            2.         Victories for Government Accountability and the First Amendment.  At today's status conference with Judge Grasso, the County backed down on its claim that its was (supposed) misconduct for a member of the Coalition (me) to meet, speak with, and take evidence from homeless individuals on the premises of the Board of Social Services.  As we successfully argued, these are all activities of free speech and free association on public property protected by the First Amendment.  Thus, any of us can go to the Board of Social Services at any time and continue gathering evidence of how the County denies emergency shelter on a regular basis.  This will prove important as the litigation progresses.  Hopefully, some of you are willing to be part of a group of us that takes turns making surprise visits to the "Special Response Office" -- and documenting for Judge Grasso on how men, women and children in need of emergency shelter are turned away.
            3.         "Tent City" Still Safe for Now.  We continue to achieve our Coalition's first goal:  preventing the homeless from being forcibly ejected from the tent city in Lakewood unless and until the County can offer them some safe and decent option in the County.  Lakewood is concerned about how tent city has not decrease in size or population, but continues to abide by the Consent Order under which Lakewood (unlike the County) remains willing to work with us to try and solve the underlying problems of inadequate shelter and inadequate permanent housing. 
            4.         County Refuses to Sit Down and Discuss Possible Solutions.  Judge Grasso invited the parties to sit down with him or a  mediator to discuss working together on possible solutions before he needed to start making any legal decisions.  We told the judge that our Coalition remains more than willing to do so, and that we would like to speak with the County about some concrete possibilities for interim solutions, such as a specific property available for rent to a large group of homeless individuals.  As we explained to the judge in his chambers before the conference began, this would be a "win-win" for everyone, since it would:  (a)  cost much less than the $75/night cost of the hotel rooms into which the County puts some of the "eligible" homeless some of the time; and (b) be a place where social services could be available to allow the homeless to seek jobs or otherwise get their lives back on track.  However, the County refused to do so, at least at this time.  Instead, the County advised the judge that it intends to file a motion to dismiss all of the claims against the County.
            5.         April 29th Hearing on County's Motion to Dismiss.  At 10 a.m. on Friday, April 29th, Judge Grasso will hear oral argument from both sides on the County's request that all the claims against it be dismissed, on the theory that the County is (supposedly) doing all that the law requires.  On that date, we will give our sides very different view:  that the County's motion should be denied, so that the County can stand trial on the claims by the homeless that the County is not living its obligations under the New Jersey Constitution, New Jersey statutes (like the "Poor Laws") and New Jersey public policy.  If any of you have not heard an important legal argument before, this will be an opportunity for you (or anyone you know who would like to join our Coalition)  to see justice in action -- meaning (we hope) a denial of the County's motion to dismiss the claims against it.  If the County's motion is denied, it should clear the way for an eventual trial against the County.
            6.         Litigation Events Between Now and the April 29th Hearing.     Between now and the big hearing on April 29th at 10 a.m., the lawyers for both sides will file briefs (formal written arguments about each side's legal positions, starting with the County's brief on March 28th, our opposition to dismissal on April 15th; and the County's reply brief on April 22).   In addition, I am pleased to report that Judge Grasso granted our request for initial "discovery" from the County -- that is, our right to serve written questions (interrogatories) and demands for documents on some of the most significant issues in the case, including (but not limited to) asking for specifics about how many people the County has failed to give emergency shelter over the years.

This litigation will continue to be a difficult one, against a County that seems determined to keep the truth from coming to light.  We, on the other hand, will continue to work for the day when no one in Ocean County -- or for that matter, no one anywhere in New Jersey or the world -- needs to be homeless.       

Jeffrey J. Wild Member of the Firm Lowenstein Sandler PC 65 Livingston Avenue Roseland, NJ 07068 973-597-2554 (direct telephone) 973-597-2555 (direct fax) -and- 1251 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020 Tel: 212.262.6700

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