Lawmakers approve mental health care plan for homeless people

By Janie Har and Adam Beam | Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — California will establish a new court program to direct — even coerce — homeless people with serious mental illnesses into treatment after lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a proposal put forward in March by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Senate unanimously accepted the changes approved in the Assembly on Tuesday night, despite objections from civil liberties advocates who fear they could be used to force homeless residents into receiving care they do not want.

Newsom said in a statement that the passage “signifies hope for thousands of Californians with serious forms of mental illness who too often languish on our streets without the treatment they desperately need and deserve.”

Homeless people with serious mental disorders often roam the streets, prisons and hospitals, with no single entity responsible for their well-being. They can be held against their will in a psychiatric hospital for up to 72 hours. But once stabilized, a person who agrees to continue taking their medications and following services must be released.

The proposal will require counties to set up a special civil court to hear petitions brought by family, first responders and others on behalf of someone diagnosed with specified disorders, such as schizophrenia and other disorders psychiatric.

The court could order a plan for a maximum of 12 months and renewable for another 12 months. A person facing a criminal charge could avoid being punished by following a mental health treatment plan. A person who does not agree to a treatment plan may be coerced into it. Newsom said he hopes these courts catch people before they fall into the criminal justice system.

California and its local governments spend billions of dollars trying to solve homelessness each year, only for the public to see little progress on the streets. Newsom said his proposal would hold counties accountable as well as people in need of help.

The proposal received broad support from lawmakers who said it was clear California needed to do something about the mental health crisis visible along highways and on city streets. Supporters told heartbreaking stories of watching loved ones move in and out of temporary psychiatric detentions, with no mechanism to stabilize them in a long-term treatment plan.

Suzette Martinez Valladares, a member of the Republican Assembly, said her cousin, a Vietnam War veteran, lived on the streets in a homeless camp before his death.

“I wish my family had the tools that this bill is going to bring so that he is still alive and with us,” she said. “It will save lives. It was time.

Other lawmakers backed the bill reluctantly.

“At what point does compassion end and our desire to just get people off the streets and out of our public view begin?” said Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat. “I don’t think it’s a great bill. But it seems like the best idea we have at this point to try to improve a horrible situation.

Critics of the legislation have argued that the state lacks enough homes, treatment beds, outreach workers and therapists to care for those who need help, let alone those forced to take some. They say that people who choose to accept treatment are much more likely to succeed than those who are forced into it.

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