With more than 100,000 people living on the streets, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law on Wednesday that will force some of them into treatment as part of a program the governor described as “care” that opponents argue is draconian.
Newsom signed the Community Support, Recovery and Empowerment Act on Wednesday. It allows family members, first responders and others to ask a judge to make a treatment plan for someone with certain illnesses, including schizophrenia. Those who refuse may be placed under guard and ordered to comply.
Currently, homeless people with serious mental health disorders flow from the streets to prisons and hospitals. They can stay in a psychiatric hospital involuntarily for up to three days. But if they promise to take medicine and attend other services, they should be released.
The law Newsom signed Wednesday allows the court to order a treatment plan for one year, which can be extended for a second year. The plan may include medication, housing, and treatment.
For decades, California has largely treated homelessness as a local problem, channeling billions of dollars each year to city and county governments for various treatment programs. But with 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 got. And look what we got. It’s unacceptable,” Newsom said Wednesday before signing the legislation. “This (law) is drafted unlike anything you’ve seen in the state of California, which has been around for almost the last century.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California, Human Rights Watch, Disability Rights California and several organizations that work with homeless people, minority communities and people with disabilities say the new program violates civil rights.
Courts are a scary place for many people with serious mental illness, and they say coercion runs counter to the peer-based model that is critical to recovery. In other words, critics say, a person has to seek help, and that can take months or years.
“This outdated and coercive model of putting people with disabilities in court causes injury and harm to vulnerable Californians and reinforces institutionalized racism,” the ACLU of Southern California said in a tweet. “We will continue to fight, and expect to see legal challenges to stop this flawed plan from harming our community.”
The program is not just for the homeless. It only applies to people with severe mental illness – mostly psychotic disorders – and only if they have no chance of surviving safely in the community without supervision or are likely to harm themselves or others.
That means people who struggle with alcohol and opioid addictions don’t qualify unless they have mental illnesses.
Newsom’s administration estimates that about 12,000 people could benefit from the program. State House Republican Leader James Gallagher said that’s not enough.
“Even though it’s better than nothing, the (Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment) Court is basically a new bureaucratic half-measure,” said Gallagher, who like most of his Republican colleagues in the state Legislature voted for the law. “What we want is not a fundamental policy change. It helps some seriously mentally ill people get treatment, but it doesn’t stop the explosion of homeless encampments in our community.
The program doesn’t begin until next year, and only seven counties: Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Stanislaus and Tuolumne must establish programs by Oct. 1, 2023. All other counties will have until Dec. 1. In the year 2024
Each of California’s 58 counties must establish special courts to handle these cases. Non-participating counties can be fined up to $1,000 per day.
Newsom said the biggest challenge is finding and keeping enough health care workers to treat everyone who needs it. This year’s state budget includes $296.5 million for the “Workforce for a Healthy California for All Program,” with a goal of hiring 25,000 community health workers by 2025.
The California National Coalition on Mental Illness supports the proposal, as do businesses and dozens of cities, including the mayors of Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego.
They say treatment models and antipsychotics have changed dramatically since people were institutionalized. Proponents say the individual should be able to thrive in the community given the right clinical support team and housing plan.
Newsom said he was “tired” of arguments from civil liberties groups that the program would go too far.
“Their perspective is defined by what they see on the streets and sidewalks across the state,” he said.