On a hot Sunday, I was doing my usual — volunteering with Hotdogs for the Homeless — and suddenly one of our homeless individuals (let's call him John) started yelling at a young volunteer because of her religion. I had to intervene, explaining to John that we do not pass judgment and are all trying to help one another. I then apologized to the young woman who was simply trying to help her community.

All night I could not stop thinking about the encounter, how disappointed I was in John and how pained I was that people who are "different" are so often treated poorly. I even judged John thinking he was too unstable for me to help him.

The next morning, as the attorney for the Oklahoma City Municipal Court's Community Court program, I went to meet with new clients. My law firm partnered with the city and the Homeless Alliance to create Community Court. The primary program goal is to remove barriers created by outstanding citations and fines and make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to secure housing, employment and other assistance. Every couple of months, I meet with these clients across the city. This day was no different.

But when I walked into the Diversion Hub that morning, guess who I saw? John. Not wearing my usual Sunday ballcap and T-shirt, John did not recognize me. I ignored the previous day's events and proceeded with the meeting. I asked him to tell me about his citations and what led to his homelessness. John told me that he lost all his medications when the pandemic hit because his service provider had to close. When he is off his medications, he can't control himself and struggles with memory loss and other health-related ailments. His children stopped talking to him because of how "crazy" he had become.

He told me that he yelled at some poor volunteer trying to feed him the day before, and he knew he shouldn't but couldn't stop himself. Through tears, he said that his mental health makes it hard for anyone to understand him. He told me his shoes kept getting stolen, and he was down to the clothes he was wearing.

This is not a unique story coming from this population; our neighbors are struggling like this daily. What is unique in this story is that John was presenting me with a challenge: How do I put aside my bias against his behavior in order to offer him a service that could help him overcome the communal bias he faced daily? I remember telling God after that meeting that He has an interesting sense of humor and to use the opportunity for His good.

Throughout the months of John's time in Community Court, I would pray with him, hold his hand and bring him necessities. I spoke with his case manager regularly so we could work as a team. And slowly, through engaging in services and getting back on his medications, John changed. Just before he successfully graduated from Community Court with all his cases dismissed and fines and fees suspended, John became housed. He was a totally different man from that first encounter with the young woman. Months later, John has reunited with his children, who now provide full time care to him.

I share this story because there are many in our community like John, and I am blessed to represent them as their Community Court attorney.

Community Court isn't just about waiving someone's fees. It's about truly seeing the person, granting them an opportunity to accept and address the underlying causes of their charges, and encouraging them to take the step to self-improvement.

Originally published by The Oklahoman.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.