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Governor Newsom Proposes Court-Ordered Treatment for theHomeless

Mark Rippee, who developed schizophrenia after a traumatic brain injury, has been living on the streets for years. Photo: Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters

Earlier this month, Governor Newsom proposed the creation of mental health courts in each California county, dubbed “CARE Courts,” to ensure that Californians who are unable to care for themselves and have schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, including severe addiction, receive or are placed in treatment. 

Under the plan’s framework, family members, behavioral health providers, first responders or “other approved parties” would be able to petition a CARE Court proceeding. Importantly, CARE Court petitions could be used to divert the mentally ill Californians from criminal court proceedings and thus provide a treatment-based alternative to incarceration. 

After a petition is filed, clinical evaluations would be conducted on the Californian in question. If the Californian is found to be sufficiently mentally impaired, the court would order a 12 month treatment plan that would include “behavioral health treatment, stabilization medication and a housing plan.”

Once a plan is adopted, county-level behavioral health care teams, the program participant, and the supporter — a new government role to help the participant understand and make decisions — would work together to regularly review and update the care plan as needed, extending the plan to 24 months if necessary. 

Participants who “graduate” from the program — that is, complete their required treatment and have mentally improved, are then eligible for ongoing treatment, long-term recovery support, and even services like housing. 

Those who refuse to complete their care programs would face conservatorship and mandated treatment. 

Researchers currently estimate that anywhere between 7,000 and 12,000 of the most mentally ill Californians would qualify for the program, a small fraction of California’s more than 150,000 homeless individuals. 

Despite the program’s focus on only the most egregiously schizophrenic and psychotic Californians, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finds the bill an unacceptable threat to the rights of the homeless and severely mentally ill. 

“We don’t need to choose between coercive treatments and letting people die on the street,” said Kath Rogers of the ACLU of Southern California. “That’s a false dichotomy.”

California Republicans, on the other hand, are “intrigued” by the proposal, having promoted many similar bills in the past. Instead of focusing on Newsom’s proposal, however, Republicans have since rolled out a package of 16 bills designed to combat homelessness, from limiting liability for non-profit organizations (like churches) that provide temporary shelter, expanding conservatorship eligibility, and exempting emergency shelters and supportive housing projects from environmental reports required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

One bill in this package, Senate Bill 1006 proposed by Sen. Brian Jones that would provide grants to law enforcement agencies to create homeless outreach teams, has already passed the Senate Public Safety Committee. 

Optimistic that several Republican bills have a good chance at making it to Governor Newsom’s desk, Jones said, “[This] is a good sign that just maybe, maybe the Democrats are finally willing to work with Republicans in battling the homeless issue here in California.”