California governor approves mental health courts for homeless people

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — With more than 100,000 people living on the streets, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed a new law that could force some of them into treatment under a program which the first-term governor describes as “caring” but opponents argue it’s cruel.

Newsom signed the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Act on Wednesday. This would allow family members, first responders and others to ask a judge to develop a treatment plan for someone diagnosed with certain disorders, including schizophrenia. Those who refuse could be placed under guardianship and ordered to comply.

Right now, homeless people with severe mental disorders are bouncing off the streets into prisons and hospitals. They can be held against their will in a psychiatric hospital for up to three days. But they should be released if they promise to take medication and follow up with other services.

The law Newsom signed on Wednesday would allow a court to order a treatment plan for up to one year, which could be extended for a second year. The plan could include medication, housing, and therapy.

For decades, California has primarily treated homelessness as a local problem, funneling billions of dollars to city and county governments for various treatment programs each year. But despite all that spending — including $9 billion last year and another $4.8 billion this year — homelessness remains one of the state’s most pressing and visible issues.

“Keep doing what you’ve been doing and you’ll get what you’ve got. And look what we have. This is unacceptable,” Newsom said Wednesday before signing the law. “This (law) was designed completely unlike anything you’ve seen in the state of California, presumably in the last century.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of California, Human Rights Watch, Disability Rights California and many organizations that work with homeless people, minority communities and people with disabilities say the new program will violate civil rights.

They say the courts are a scary place for many people with serious mental illness and that coercion is contrary to the peer-based model that is essential to recovery. In other words, say the critics, a person has to want to get help and it can take months or years.

“This outdated and coercive model of placing people with disabilities in courtrooms will cause trauma and harm to Californians in vulnerable situations and reinforce institutional racism,” the ACLU of Southern California said in a posted message. on his Twitter account. “We will continue to fight back, and expect to see legal challenges to stop this misguided plan from harming our community.”

The program is not exclusively for the homeless. It only applies to people with serious mental illness – mainly psychotic disorders – and only if they are unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision or if they are likely to be harm or hurt others.

This means that people struggling with alcohol and opioid addiction will not qualify unless they have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder.

The Newsom administration estimates that around 12,000 people could get help under the program. James Gallagher, the Republican leader of the state Assembly, said that was not enough.

“While better than nothing, the (community assistance, recovery and empowerment) tribunal essentially amounts to yet another bureaucratic half-measure,” said Gallagher, who like most of his fellow Republicans voted for it. the bill in the state legislature. “This is not the revolutionary policy change we need. This will help some people with serious mental illnesses to seek treatment, but will not stop the explosion of homeless camps in our communities.

The program would not begin until next year, and only seven counties: Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Stanislaus and Tuolumne must establish programs by October 1, 2023. All other counties would have until on December 1. 2024.

Each of California’s 58 counties should set up special courts to handle these cases. Counties that don’t participate could be fined up to $1,000 a day.

Newsom said the biggest challenge will be finding and keeping enough healthcare workers to treat everyone who needs them. The state budget this year includes $296.5 million for the “Workforce for a Healthy California for All” program, which aims to recruit 25,000 community health workers by 2025.

California’s National Alliance on Mental Illness supports the proposal, as do professional organizations and dozens of cities, including the mayors of Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego.

They say treatment patterns and antipsychotic medications have changed significantly since people have been institutionalized. The individual should be able to thrive in the community with the right clinical support team and the right housing plan, proponents say.

Newsom said he was “worn out” by arguments from civil liberties groups that the program goes too far.

“Their perspective is expressed by what you see on streets and sidewalks across the state,” he said.

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Beam reported from Sacramento, CA.

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