California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a highly controversial plan into law today, putting homeless people across the state on a potential path toward court-ordered mental health treatment, with the later prospect of forced conservatorship if they don’t go along with it.

The plan has a four-letter acronym – Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Court – and proponents say it will close up loopholes and gaps that prevent Californians with serious mental health issues from receiving life-saving help.

“It will take us now a year to begin the process of implementation … every county in the state will be responsible for implementing this program,” Newsom said at a Wednesday news conference where he signed the bill. 

He added that seven counties “large and small” have committed to implementing the first phase within the next year.

Including Orange County.

Anyone from family members and social workers to police officers can start the process and petition to put someone without self-decision-making ability through the court, which would order some type of individualized care plan for that person – helped along by a public defender and “supporter” – for up to two years.

To be eligible, one must be 18 years of age or older and currently experiencing severe mental illness, and unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision or in need of services to prevent deterioration leading to disability or harm to themselves or others.

If the person doesn’t complete their “Care Plan,” however, they can be put under a forced conservatorship, in which another person can make medical, financial and residential choices for them. 

That’s exactly the problem for critics, which includes advocates from Disability Rights California to Human Rights Watch, who argue that voluntary outpatient treatment is more effective than court-ordered treatment, and that the new framework will perpetuate institutional racism and worsen health disparities.

In the long run, advocates like Lili Graham of the Disability Rights California say it will take legal autonomy from California’s poorest people and move them out of sight without any guarantee of housing – further fueling an “anywhere but here” approach.

“This goes against every core principle of why we exist,” Graham said in a Sept. 2 interview over Zoom. 

Newsom also dismissed the law’s critics, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, as “four letter groups.”

“It’s one thing to receive an opposition letter from four letter groups that have been out there for 30, 40 years understandably holding hands talking about the way the world should be,” Newsom said. “It’s another to say well that’s wonderful, but what about my damn daughter — what are you going to do for her? Because this isn’t working.” 

The bill was co-authored by Orange County’s own state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton). 

At the Wednesday news conference, Umberg invoked the feeling of a 3 a.m. phone call from a relative and “you go, ‘Wow thank God he’s in jail because I know he’ll be safe for some period of time.”

“It’s been 16 years since we stopped looking for our relative,” Umberg said, as a plan like CARE Court in his family’s case has “come too late.”

CARE Court is “not fully voluntary,” Eggman acknowledged at the news conference, adding “it brings people in … often these are the most difficult people to treat … What this does is moves them to the front of the line, where it forces our system to deal with them on the front end and not leave them on the streets.”

Homeless advocates have long pushed a housing-first approach as the real solution to homelessness – but with a lack of political will, and increasing housing demand, there’s been slow progress to shore up the shortfall in housing stock. 

The mental health court idea already has a precedent in Orange County.

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.

It’s a hot debate across California – how to address the intricate cross-section of homelessness and mental health. 

And Orange County’s been an epicenter. 

In 2018, county officials were poised to evict a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana Riverbed until a federal judge slammed the brakes and ordered the county to come up with some type of plan for the people who’d be moved. 

And the district Umberg represents includes the City of Santa Ana, what’s considered to be the epicenter of the county’s homelessness crisis. 

Namely because the city’s home to the county’s jails, behavioral health and social services offices. 

It’s also home to a number of homeless service providers like the Mental Health Association of Orange County’s Homeless Multi-Services Center, as well as the Harm Reduction Center – places that provide food, substance abuse treatment and prevention, basic needs and even bus vouchers. 

Officials there in recent years have moved to push those providers out through lawsuits and revoked permits, attributing public nuisance and blight problems in town to those types of places. 

In the City of Orange, officials also moved to push out a longtime homeless soup kitchen that homeless people in the area called a lifeline, on largely the same public nuisance basis. 

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