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In Cambridge, mercy and justice for the homeless

Judge Roanne Sragow presided over Middlesex County's new Homeless Court in Cambridge. Thomas Farragher/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — In black robe and high heels, the judge makes her way to the makeshift courtroom past a broad cast-iron stove, a huge stainless-steel kettle, and a rack of vegetables and sauces in cans the size of footballs.

Her “bench” is a large old conference table that had been wiped clean earlier Monday morning, and as Judge Roanne Sragow approached it through the kitchen’s door, a court officer yelled the familiar, “All rise!’’

And with that, Middlesex County’s new Homeless Court is called to order.

“We reconfigured the courtroom because the first entrance was kind of slippery,’’ Sragow tells me. “They were saying, ‘Don’t fall! Don’t fall!’ Wouldn’t that be a great entrance? I’d just kind of come sliding in.’’


A sliding judge would be unusual. But it would be in keeping with the kind of unconventional criminal justice that is now in its infancy at the Salvation Army building here on Massachusetts Avenue, where Cambridge’s large homeless population is centered.

Seven years ago, the Cambridge District Court was relocated miles away in Medford. For some of this city’s homeless population — which reaches upward to 500 — it may as well be on the moon. With a skyrocketing default rate, city officials, the district attorney’s office, and Sragow, the district court’s first justice, decided to bring criminal justice for the homeless back home to Cambridge.

Modeled in part after Boston’s Homeless Court that Judge Kathleen Coffey created at the Pine Street Inn in 2011, the court is a kind of collaborative of criminal justice in which police, probation workers, public defenders, and prosecutors meet beforehand with Sragow to triage the cases and devise justice laced with compassion.

“We’re helping them,’’ Sragow said. “Not that the court is an agency for social work, but we have an obligation to deal with crime in specialized ways and assist people. They shouldn’t be sitting in jail. They should be getting help and we do that.’’


On Monday morning, the stakeholders review files passed to them by a court clerk. A hungry homeless man allegedly stole a fried chicken from Star Market. Another resisted arrest after disruptive behavior at Starbucks. A woman violated a restraining order, prohibiting her from her family’s home.

All of the defendants are known to the Cambridge police officers who make up the city’s homeless outreach unit, Matthew Price and Eric Helberg, who see the new court as a welcome extension to the street work they’ve done for a decade.

“One of the most important things is the relationship,’’ Helberg said. “They feel they have something vested in here now. They don’t want to let you down.’’

When I see a homeless man at a city intersection, I’ve mastered the thousand-mile stare. I fiddle with the radio or pretend to be on my cellphone. Surely, I’m doing my part with the money I put in the collection plate on Sunday or through my modest United Way contribution.

That sort of self-administered absolution is far from what’s happening here. In fact, what’s happening here in this Salvation Army courtroom is the opposite of that: deeply committed, granular justice mixed with mercy and compassion. A rare and impressive recipe.

During a lull in Monday’s session, a young man sitting next to me in the court gallery suddenly raised his legs parallel to the floor. He locked his ankles together.


He smiled at the judge, flashing her two thumbs up, and waggled his feet adorned with new white running shoes.

I half expected the watchful court officer to rebuke his display of injudicious conduct.

Instead, Sragow smiled broadly back at the man.

“Nice sneakers, Rashad,’’ she said. “Very nice sneakers.’’

She should know. A few weeks earlier, the man had been before her in Cambridge District Court. He desperately needed new footwear.

On her lunch break, Sragow bought him those new sneakers — and some socks — at Modell’s Sporting Goods in Medford.

It’s the kind of micro-justice she and her close-to-the-ground partners hope to dispense one Monday morning a month in that makeshift courtroom on Massachusetts Avenue, where the judge arrives through the kitchen door.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.