California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s controversial proposal to steer homeless people with severe mental disorders into treatment cleared the state Assembly on Tuesday and is on its way to becoming law despite objections from civil liberties advocates who fear it will be used to force unhoused residents into care they don’t want.
Homeless people with severe mental health disorders often cycle among the streets, jail and hospitals, with no one entity responsible for their well-being. They can be held against their will at a psychiatric hospital for up to 72 hours. But once stabilized, a person who agrees to continue taking medication and follow up on services must be released.
The bill the state Assembly approved on Tuesday by a 60-2 vote would require counties to set up a special civil court to process petitions brought by family, first responders and others on behalf of an individual diagnosed with specified disorders, such as schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.
The court could order a plan lasting up to 12 months, and renewable for another 12 months. An individual facing a criminal charge could avoid punishment by completing a mental health treatment plan. A person who does not agree to a treatment plan could be compelled into it. Newsom has said he hopes these courts catch people before they fall into the criminal court system.
The bill represents a new approach for California to address homelessness, a crisis the state has struggled with for decades. The state government spends billions of dollars on the issue each year, only for the public to perceive little progress on the streets.
“I believe that this bill is an opportunity for us to write a new narrative,” said Assemblymember Mike Gipson, a Democrat who voted for the bill.
The bill has now passed both houses of the state Legislature and needs one more vote in the state Senate before it will go to Newsom’s desk. Newsom has until the end of September to sign it into law.
The proposal had broad support from lawmakers who said it was clear California had to do something about the mental health crisis visible along highways and in city streets. Supporters relayed harrowing tales of watching loved ones cycle in and out of temporary psychiatric holds, without a mechanism to stabilize them in a long-term treatment plan.
Republican Assemblymember Suzette Martinez Valladares said her cousin, a Vietnam War veteran, had been living on the streets in a homeless camp before his death.
“I wish that my family had the tools that this bill is going to bring forward so that he might still be alive and with us,” she said. “This is going to save lives. It’s about time.”
Critics of the legislation have maintained that the state lacks enough homes, treatment beds, outreach workers and therapists to care for those who want help, never mind people compelled to take it. They say that people who choose to accept treatment are much more likely to succeed than those coerced into it.
“At what point does compassion end and our desire to just get people off the streets and out of our public sight begins?” said Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat who said he reluctantly supported the bill on Tuesday. “I don’t think this is a great bill. But it seems to be the best idea that we have at this point to try to improve a godawful situation.”
The bill says Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne counties must establish courts by Oct. 1, 2023, with the remainder by Dec. 1, 2024.
Courts could fine counties up to $1,000 a day for non-compliance, which counties believe is unfair if they don’t have enough support from the state in the way of housing and behavioral health workers.
“There will be no perfect solution to this problem. But this is better than doing nothing and it is too easy in a democracy to kick a problem down the road and do nothing,” said Assemblymember Steve Bennett, a Democrat who voted for the bill.