Anyone who has volunteered at homeless shelters, handing out bananas, sleeping bags and more to unhoused individuals bused in from surrounding areas, knows the CARE courts due to begin operating early next year in seven California counties are long overdue.
Volunteers and anyone else engaging the homeless know a combination of drug or alcohol addicts, mentally ill persons and veterans or ex-convicts with post-traumatic stress disorder make up a majority of the unhoused in every part of California.
Put them in so-called “permanent supportive housing” and many get into physical fights with fellow residents and are then kicked out. That’s one reason why, despite thousands of new tiny homes, former hotel rooms and other units opening up for the unhoused over the last five years, homeless numbers remain almost stable.
The simple reality is that mentally and emotionally healthy folks unhoused because they are short of rent money are a minority in this populace. So are newcomers from other states with much colder weather.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals of all these kinds turned up for years at overnight facilities offering shelter from winter weather, some jabbering incoherently and others completely articulate as they explained their plight. Many obviously needed psychiatric care and appropriate medication, while others could profit from job training or counseling. Shelters usually offered none of that.
There have long been some unhoused who reject any help, preferring life on the streets regardless of surrounding conditions, suspicious of anyone trying to assist them and seeking to evade all rules and restrictions. Plus, a criminal element preys on fellow homeless and on surrounding neighborhoods, most commonly stealing anything they find that can be sold off, from expensive bicycles to catalytic converters containing precious metals.
All these categories are filled with folks who could benefit from help, but have not accepted that idea. Since a series of legal decisions in the 1960s all but outlawed forcible commitments to mental facilities, there have been few ways to compel assistance for any adult.
That may change a bit now, unless lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and others derail Newsom’s new CARE courts. His Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Act (CARE), aims not to commit anyone or set up conservatorships, but rather to see courts compel those who need it to get help. The homeless can refer themselves to CARE courts under this new law, which starts in Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and San Francisco counties next year and goes statewide in 2024.
Or they can be referred by families, doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and others with whom they interact. They also can still refuse to participate.
But once evaluated by a CARE court, they will undergo mental health and addiction treatment and receive supervised housing. There is no prison involved, no confinement. Just two years of shelter, a clinical team, a lawyer and a volunteer supporter with whom they can converse regularly.
Newsom calls this “a new path forward for thousands of struggling Californians and empowering their loved ones to help. We must make it work.”
But many civil rights and disability rights organizations disagree vehemently. The new system, said a letter okayed by many such groups, “will only lead to institutionalization and criminalization of those already isolated on the streets.”
If all this sounds a bit confused, it is. Any homeless person who insists on the status quo can keep it, staying in tent villages periodically razed by local authorities, the residents usually moving to other sites nearby.
But families of many homeless want this program to go forward. “I worry every day about my son,” said one 77-year-old retiree in Los Angeles with a bipolar 48-year-old son living on the streets. “I may know where he is one day, but the next I can’t find him. It makes me crazy.”The real question here is why some organizations claiming to help the homeless don’t want to give this new program a chance to prove itself.
For sure, something must be done for the homeless, or this current cancer on American society will live on indefinitely. CARE courts may start out seeming clumsy, but also might evolve into something that liberates unhoused people, rather than essentially condemning them to their present poverty and insecurity.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org.