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Rock Hill's new Homeless Court notches a win

Curtis Gordon sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. He got on his own two feet outside the Rock Hill Homeless Court because, well, he wanted to show that he'd gotten on his own two feet.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Curtis Gordon sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. He got on his own two feet outside the Rock Hill Homeless Court because, well, he wanted to show that he'd gotten on his own two feet.

Curtis Gordon found himself on the streets, unhoused, because of drugs – “Doing drugs and running with the wrong crowd,” he says.

He does own up to his mistakes, though.

“Anytime I was doing drugs and running in the streets, and not doing the right thing, not living the life right,” he says, “you can't blame nobody for it. All you got to do is admit to it and ask for help. And that's what I done. And they helped me.”

That is what he did – ask for help, through Pathways Community Center. Pathways is Rock Hill’s umbrella social services agency, connecting people in need to food, shelter, and substance abuse treatment, among other services.

And Gordon says Pathways has helped him turn his life around. He’s been clean of all drugs and alcohol for about seven months, he has a job, and he’s moved out of the Haven Men’s Shelter and into an apartment with his now-fiancée, a lady who’d been staying at the city’s Women’s Shelter.

And part of that transformation involved going through the Rock Hill Homeless Court. One of a half-dozen in the state, the city Homeless Court is a supremely informal, yet fully official, judicial entity.

On the last Thursday of every month (barring November, with Thanksgiving), Homeless Court meets at Pathways, in a (very) green room bedecked with folding tables and chairs. Says Chisa Puttman, senior solicitor with the Rock Hill Municipal Court, the reason for holding sessions in a non-courtroom is because the city is going for friendly.

“It's less intimidating,” Puttman says. “This is a happy environment. We’re, we're not trying to put anybody in jail. We're not trying to have anyone convicted. We're trying to help.”

The state Supreme Court granted Rock Hill permission to found its Homeless Court, which opened just this past spring. Curtis Gordon is the first person to complete the program, which largely asks that you make a sincere effort to stay on the straight and narrow for eight weeks while in the program.

The aim is simple – those with misdemeanors charged within city limits can apply to have their records reviewed and expunged.

“Typically, those who are homeless create misdemeanor crimes simply because they are living on the street,” says Judge Jane Modla, a city judge who officiates Homeless Court proceedings.

Those misdemeanors are usually for things like trespassing, vagrancy, petty theft, and shoplifting – one of the charges that has hindered Curtis Gordon from being able to get work and housing.

Gordon was pointed towards Homeless Court when it started up and he dove into the program head first.

“They got rid of nine charges,” he says of the court. “I had a little more than that, but they done helped me out. “

Talking with Gordon is an emotional endeavor. He’s so moved by the help he’s received and so grateful for the second chance he’s been given that he can barely make it through two sentences without crying.

“Tears of joy,” he says. “Seriously.”

He says he’s proud of how far he’s come, too.

“I was in terrible shape when I come here, I'll be honest,” he says. “I done came a long way.”

Armed with a job – he washes dishes at a restaurant in the city – and a much thinner record than he walked into court with on Day One, Gordon says he’s got no intention of going back to the life that put him in front of Judge Modla in the first place.

“I'm just tickled to death,” he says (through tears of joy). “How far I came in such a short time.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.