Newsom’s controversial mental health court plan for homeless people advances

California Governor. Gavin Newsom’s controversial proposal to encourage more homeless people to seek mental health treatment is moving through the Legislature, despite deep concerns from legislators trying to tackle a problem that touches every corner of the state.

Legislators are worried that there isn’t enough guaranteed staffing or housing for the program to succeed while forcing vulnerable individuals into court-ordered services against their will. The bill passed unanimously through the Senate. It was also approved by the Assembly judiciary commission Tuesday. This is one of many stops before the full chamber votes on it.

But the proposal also received its first no vote and members frustrated by the status quo emphasized how critical that all pieces — housing, services, trained staff, heartfelt support — be in place for the program to work.

“I know that we all agree that the current system is broken and failing. You can walk outside of this building and go a few blocks … and see those failures every single day,” said Assemblymember Matt Haney, a Democrat who lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where open drug use and homeless people experiencing severe mental health breakdowns are common sights.

“We are in desperate need of a paradigm shift,” he said at Tuesday’s judiciary hearing.

Newsom is a Democrat who was once the mayor of San Francisco. His administration has made homelessness a top priority, spending billions to transform motels into housing, and pitching in for clearing encampments. In March, he proposed spending $2 billion to build more treatment beds. He proposed the creation of special mental health courts in every county to link services to homeless individuals with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

Nearly a quarter of California’s estimated 161,000 unhoused residents have a severe mental illness. They pinball among jails, emergency rooms, temporary psychiatric holds and the streets until they’re arrested for a minor crime and brought before a judge who can order them into a long-term treatment plan.

Newsom explained that his proposal allows relatives and emergency dispatchers to refer people for help. He has said it’s not compassionate to let distressed people deteriorate on the streets.

“CARE Court is about meeting people where they are and acting with compassion to support the thousands of Californians living on our streets that are hardest to reach, but who need our help the most,” he said in a statement applauding the bill’s advancement.

Newsom said that the goal is to have the person accept services. However, the legislation could result a forced treatment which alarms civil rights advocates. It doesn’t guarantee housing or provide dedicated funds. This legislation comes at an important time when psychologists, and other behavioral health professionals are in high demand. Critics also believe that forced treatment is likely to fail.

“In no way should there be a forced situation where you’re shoving needles into people or forcing them to take medication, that’s where you get into people who resent it and regret it and they go down a spiral of self-medication or any other number of issues,”Eric Harris, the public policy director of Disability Rights California, opposed the bill.

On Tuesday, Ash Kalra (a Democrat from San Jose) voted against the proposal. He agreed with critics who said judicial courts were a frightening place for unhoused persons and that more money should be given to organizations already doing the hard, intensive, slow-moving work to convince people to seek out services.

The Judiciary Committee received a legislative analysis that raised serious concerns about the proposal.

It is strongly advised that individuals not be placed in the court program until housing and other services are provided. County officials should also not implement the program until infrastructure is available. The analysis shows that counties should not be fined or sanctioned by the state until they have the resources to implement the program. Additionally, funding for community-based, voluntary programs should not be decreased to support the new program.

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