Big changes could be coming to Orange County’s approach to the worsening homeless crisis as state officials are gearing up to create court-ordered mental health and drug addiction treatment programs.
State public health leaders and officials from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced Thursday that the new proposed court-ordered programs aim to not only help treat the disorders, but also get people into housing.
“Once someone receives a court-ordered care plan, there is an expectation that that person follows through with the plan,” said Jason Elliot, a senior counselor to Newsom, in a Thursday news briefing.
Officials are calling it “care court.”
And the courts are expected to hold counties accountable to those mandated programs.
“The county will provide the resources necessary under a court order,” Elliot added.
But the policy proposal still has to go through the state legislature before any changes are made.
Elliot said the earliest the new approach could take effect would be July 1, if it’s attached to the upcoming state budget.
Newsom committed a $15 billion homeless spending plan in the proposed budget, and officials say much of that can be used to fund the proposed court-ordered programs.
But, he said, they still have to speak with legislative leaders to hammer out specific details in the new approach.
If state legislators adopt Newsom’s policy proposal, it could bolster many of the local mental health and substance abuse initiatives Orange County officials are doing.
At a Thursday public hearing, OC’s new mental health director said drug addiction treatment through county programs is enormously successful.
Such treatment led to a 29% decrease in homelessness, a 107% increase in employment, a 65% reduction in arrests and a 32% reduction in emergency room visits, said Veronica Kelly, director of mental health & recovery services at the county.
Speaking at a Tuesday news conference at Be Well OC, county Supervisor Katrina Foley noted the worsening homeless crisis.
“We continue to face a homelessness crisis here in Orange County – mental health crisis and addiction. The problem only got worse during the COVID 19 pandemic,” Foley said. “Across the state and the county, we are seeing encampments that need to be cleared, we are struggling to provide housing for people.”
Be Well OC was created roughly a year ago to help the very people the proposed state policy looks to help: people struggling with drug addiction and mental illness.
“Since that time, we have seen pushing upwards of about 4,000 people. Many of those came by way of law enforcement, or through emergency departments, who would have otherwise been in jails or (emergency rooms) for long term stays,” said Marshall Moncrief, CEO of Be Well OC and OC Mind.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said mental health treatments – like antipsychotic drugs – and housing are part of the proposed overhaul.
He also said counties and cities will be held accountable, along with the person in the program.
“Government accountability is part of this. We aren’t just creating an empty shell of a plan,” Ghaly told reporters Thursday. “If – as a condition – we’re not able to see a county or the partners that are responsible for delivering this service, then the court can intervene with sanctions as well.”
It’s unclear what types of sanctions superior courts could levy and state officials said they need to iron that out with state legislators.
Ghaly also said people in the court-ordered mental health treatment and drug abuse programs would be involved with the planning of their recovery program.
Family members, doctors, clinicians, first responders and others would have the ability to refer someone to the court-ordered programs, he added.
Elliot said the programs could serve as an alternative to criminal court for people facing minor charges.
“If an individual is unable to complete his or her care plan, then that individual will be referred back into the process that they were diverted out of,” he said.
He also said it could help people before they get into the court system.
“Why not just do that before the crime is committed? And that’s the point of care court,” Elliot said.
Elliot also echoed what many housing advocates have been saying for years: homelessness is exploding due to a lack of affordable housing.
“Increasing homelessness is a pattern that we see in Orange County and across counties in California,” he said in response to Voice of OC questions. “We have a profound affordability challenge across the country.”
“When you combine those deep affordability issues with easy access to narcotics … the result is homelessness. Homelessness is not simple – to state the obvious. There are often multiple causes and multiple issues,” Elliot said. “The idea with care court is to unravel some of those challenges.”
Newsom’s Senior Advisor on Aging, Disability and Alzheimer’s, Kimberly McCoy Wade, said leaders from mental health groups, disability advocacy organizations, doctors associations, hospitals and others will be consulted as officials build the new approach.
State officials are also looking to have someone help a person through a court-ordered mental health or substance abuse program.
“It is not your clinician, it is not your case manager … it is not your lawyer,” McCoy Wade said. “This is a person to help you determine your choices, your preferences and as you stabilize be more and more involved in self directing your care.”
Officials also said people ordered into the programs will have a court-appointed lawyer to represent them.
Meanwhile, homeless deaths have been hitting record numbers, according to Father Dennis Kriz of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton.
Kriz, who regularly contributes to Voice of OC’s community opinion page, found that 46 people died on the streets in January – that’s up from 40 dead in January 2021.
He also found that 386 people died on the streets between Dec. 1, 2020 to Nov. 30 last year.
“If we can prevent someone from dying on the street, that’s the most important outcome. So that’s really what we’re trying to do here,” Elliot said.
Reporters Hosam Elattar and Nick Gerda contributed to this article.
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