News Clips

September 13, 2011

Long Beach Gazette: Court For Homeless Offers New Start

Long Beach Gazette | Jonathan Van Dyke

Michael Shanahan described what sounded like his own version of Groundhog Day.

For just about every day, at about 5 a.m., his blood alcohol level would drop just enough and it would wake him up. He woke up in a bush off of Redondo Avenue. Each time his body would feel like something beyond a hangover, he said — something far worse. It wasn’t always under the bush, but Shanahan woke up without a home for about eight straight years.

“The longer you’re out on the streets, the harder it is to get off them — I found that out,” he said. “It swallows you up.”

Shanahan is 52 years old. He has now been sober for a little more than two years.

“I’d always been on the streets, even when I had a place to stay,” he said, noting he had small bouts of homelessness even 30 years ago. “I’ve had a drug problem, but alcohol was my main problem. Alcohol really kicked my butt.”

On Thursday, Aug. 25, Shanahan completed one of the larger cogs in his overall life rehabilitation, going through the Los Angeles County Homeless Court Program. Everyone from his counselor, to public counsel to the city prosecutor have said that this second chance program was designed for a special kind of individual — and that Shanahan’s story fits that mold perfectly.

The specialized homeless court, which has been functioning for 10 years, was designed to target individuals who are currently homeless or close to it, said Christine Khalili-Borna, Public Counsel staff attorney dedicated to the Homeless Court program.

The person applying must have participated in case management for at least 90 days and he or she must not have had any police contact for at least 60 days. If those, and some other, standards are met, the court looks at possibly wiping that person’s legal slate (citations, warrants) clean — at least those minor, quality-of-life offenses (public intoxication, public urination, jaywalking).

“These things all kind of add to each other,” Khalili-Borna said. “By the end, they may end up owing thousands of dollars in fines they can’t afford as they are trying to get back on their feet.”

The program works with local prosecutorial agencies and the superior court — if all parties sign off, the tickets and citations can be suspended and the warrants rescinded.

City Prosecutor Douglas Haubert said he could barely believe it when he came across Shanahan’s name for the Homeless Court. He said he actually remembered the name from years back when he was just an entry-level prosecutor — he had to look into it.

Haubert contacted Substance Abuse Foundation counselor Debbie Wall, who was working with Shanahan and she gave a fairly glowing review.

“She basically said that it is a miracle this guy is still alive,” Haubert said. “He realized that if he did not turn his life around, he was not going to live for more than a week longer. As a result of that progress (he’d shown in the program), I was able to help give him a fresh start, and I hope he will continue on this path and become a productive member of society.”

Shanahan’s record included 45 previous convictions and nine outstanding warrants.

About two and a half years ago, Shanahan said he woke up under that bush at about 5 a.m. like he generally had and reached for a branch that he generally pulled himself up with — but this time it did not hold him up. He crashed back to the ground and urinated himself in the process.

“I said to myself, ‘This is it? What’s to become of me?’” he recalled. “I prayed and that was it — I knew I couldn’t take any more (of living that way).”

Shanahan went to a 10-day detoxification center, and then immediately afterwards he entered into the Salvation Army’s program — where he stayed for eight months before coming to the Substance Abuse Foundation, where he has stayed through the present.

“(That first contract with SAF) is for nine months and then they can stay even longer than that,” Wall said. “That’s one of the great things about this program. A 30/60/90-day program might only scratch the surface of their needs.”

SAF is 12-Steps based and it includes counseling, sober living housing and a large number of group sessions (i.e. anger management, family). Shanahan entered the program on April 14, 2010.

“I asked for help and got it, and God has been working through people such as Debbie here… I didn’t want to go out like that, so I took a chance,” Shanahan said. “I was willing to take a chance.”

Now, Shanahan said he’s been working toward better health (he said he had jaundice, pancreatitis, liver and kidney problems) and has begun taking courses at Long Beach City College — something he has wanted to do for some time now.

“It’s an emotional process, a rollercoaster, but I feel most addicts go through the same thing (getting sober),” he said. “I’m 100% better, I took care of those warrants and now I’m in school.”

As far as the legal woes that were erased?

“I see a cop, and for one minute I think, ‘Whoa,’ but then it’s okay now,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling.”

“He’s had those legal ramifications of his illness and now that he is in recovery and treatment, they’re willing to help rectify that and he was a great candidate for that reason,” Wall said.

Now, Shanahan said, it’s on to continue tackling issues and goals as he puts a lifetime of drinking and substance abuse behind him.

“It’s that old cliché, if I can do it, you can do it,” he said, of his message to others. “But you have to be willing to say I’ve had enough.”