While many advocates for homeless people have long argued that ‘housing first’ is the real solution to a worsening crisis, state officials are instead looking to mandate mental health treatment on the population, with housing more or less taking a back seat.

In early March, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a plan to put homeless people with Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders under state control, through court-ordered “CARE” plans. 

[Read: A New Approach to the Homeless Crisis Could be Coming to Orange County]

Anyone from family members, social workers, and police officers can start the process and petition to put someone without sound self-decision-making ability through the court, which would order some type of “plan” for that person for up to one year. 

That’s according to the text of the bill proposal, currently taking shape as Senate Bill 1338.

Counties would also be held accountable for making sure people get their court-ordered treatments, vow the plan’s proponents.

But the state might not have to worry about Orange County. 

“We’re several years ahead of that proposal,” said county Supervisor Doug Chaffee, at a Wednesday news conference announcing that Orange County counted more than 5,000 people living on the street or in homeless shelters, after this year’s survey of the region’s unhoused.

The 2019 count found 2,899 people living at shelters, and 3,961 people were sleeping outdoors. 

According to the most recent count conducted in February, 2,661 people were sleeping in shelters while 3,057 people were sleeping on the streets. 

In response to Voice of OC’s questions about the CARE Court proposal, Chaffee said there are available services in the county that do “many of the things the Governor hopes to do.”

In 2014, a prior county Board of Supervisors that included people like John Moorlach and Pat Bates led efforts to opt into a state law called Laura’s Law, which opened the door to court-ordered treatment for people with mental health issues.

Chaffee said creating a system for court-ordered treatments as proposed by the state would be a “step beyond.”

“There are some civil rights issues there which are very serious,” Chaffee said of the state proposal, but he added the bill “would seamlessly fit into the system we already have.” 

While the text of the bill proposal mentions the word “housing” 21 times, critics don’t see any paths in there to ‘permanent housing’ after reading it. 

In turn, civil rights watchdogs have come out swinging against the idea, saying it’s nothing short of coercion and a ploy to keep the homeless issue out of sight – even despite state officials’ claim that their plan would divert the state’s most vulnerable populations away from “more restrictive conservatorships or incarceration.”

Mainly because the plan would still lead to forced conservatorships.

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State officials seemed to be contradicting each other on that point during the rollout in early March.

Press materials from Newsom’s office said the proposed system seeks an “upstream diversion” from things like “more restrictive” conservatorships. 

But a top aide to Newsom, Jason Elliot, said “CARE court is really not a replacement for a conservatorship” during a March news briefing. “If the individual can’t complete the CARE plan, that person can be hospitalized and referred to conservatorship.” 

Yet questions remain. 

“It’s really concerning, because, what’s the goal here? Is it to get people out of sight? Someone who’s got a conservatorship over you can determine your medical care, but they can also determine where you live,” said Lili Graham, a lawyer for Disability Rights California.

When in the hands of the wrong people, a conservatorship can blur the lines between guardianship and abuse, critics warn.

The issue recently got a public spotlight in the high-profile legal battle around pop singer Britney Spears, whose conservatorship by family members limited her control over her own finances, her ability to get married, and visits with her children. 

Participants who don’t successfully complete court-ordered plans may be hospitalized or referred to conservatorship “if there are no suitable alternatives to treat that individual,” said Stephanie Welch, Deputy Secretary of Behavioral Health at California Health and Human Resources.

Welch spoke publicly at a Thursday information forum hosted by NAMI Orange County, a local mental health support organization.

At the forum, she accepted some of the criticism out there while also instructing members of the group on how to contact state representatives in Sacramento about the law.

“We respect their point of view,” Welch said to NAMI OC forum listeners, of opposition letters from the Disability Rights Center and Human Rights Watch

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The Human Rights Watch organization derided the CARE court proposal as “a new pathway for government officials and family members to place people under state control and take away their autonomy and liberty.” 

Among other things, the opposition letters cited the potential racist fallout of the idea. Black people are overrepresented in the homeless population and are overdiagnosed with mental illness, according to the health care think tank called the California Health Almanac.

In turn, critics warn Black people would be more likely to lose their autonomy under the state plan.

Welch acknowledged, “that is well-documented.”

“But it doesn’t mean that we should not move forward. We need to address that. Instead, look at the data and figure out how to make some serious inroads with those two statistics that we should be very unhappy with and propelled to do better work,” Welch told NAMI OC members.

Elliot, a top Newsom aide and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, said the idea mainly seeks to divert people from criminalization when officials unveiled it at a March 3 news conference.

“If we can divert someone out of the criminal process, that’s a great outcome,” Elliot said, responding to Voice of OC questions there. “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.” 

At the same briefing, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said  “It doesn’t require us to wait so long through failed hospitalizations, failed 5150 attempts over and over. It doesn’t require us to wait for the arrest to start doing … the services that we know that work.” 

Newsom has publicly pushed the plan, but PR materials, framework documents, and information sheets – from both his office and Health and Human Resources – make no mention of the legislators who actually authored the legislative bill proposal for it: 

State senators Tom Umberg and Susan Eggman. 

Umberg declined to be interviewed about the bill unless written questions were submitted in advance.

The bill is still making the rounds through State Capitol legislative committees.

A Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for May 16.

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David Duran, an advocate for homeless people with Housing is a Human Right OC, called CARE court is government overreach. 

“There’s a laundry list of concerns, but the biggest concern is the imposition of a person’s civil rights – their access to freedom,” Duran said in a May 4 phone interview. “It really gives people in power, friends and relatives, law enforcement, etc. the ability to criminalize and take away people’s civil rights through forced injections – it’s archaic and it’s medieval.” 

Duran said without a housing guarantee, people won’t feel safe. 

“An individual has to feel comfortable before any progress is going to be made. They’re not going to feel safe in congregate living, they’re not going to feel comfortable with forced medication or prison,” Duran said in a May 4 phone interview. 

Graham said California’s budget surplus presents a big “opportunity” to tackle the homelessness issue and “create a long-lasting plan.”

“But CARE Court isn’t a long-term, evidence-based plan,” Graham said. “This is a short-term plan that doesn’t anticipate long-term services or housing.”

She added, “We’re spending all of this money on a court system that’s brand new, where you need someone to represent the respondent. You need court reporters, deputies, public defenders, a courtroom – all those things that actually have nothing to do with housing and support.”

Graham pointed to a UCI study that found a ‘housing first’ approach would be the cheapest solution to the homelessness crisis.

“Much, much cheaper than any of these other things being contemplated through CARE court.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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