Newsom unveils new homelessness and mental health plan

As California cities struggle to address a homelessness and mental health crisis on their streets, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration on Thursday unveiled a proposal to compel more people with severe psychiatric disorders and addiction issues into court-ordered care that includes medication and housing.

The proposal, which Newsom is calling the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court, is the state’s latest effort to address one of California’s greatest struggles, and a recognition that something more robust is needed to solve the problem. Newsom allocated $12 billion for homelessness in the state budget last year and proposed another $2 billion in his January financial blueprint. But implementing a court-ordered response to mental illness and substance abuse disorders would accelerate the state’s multipronged strategy to help thousands of people get much-needed services.

All of California’s 58 counties would have to participate in CARE Court, and local governments could face sanctions if they don’t comply with its requirements. On a Thursday call with reporters, administration officials said the new program aims to save lives and prevent incarceration and homelessness among the state’s most vulnerable residents through a modernized approach that doesn’t default to conservatorship.

Conservatorships are usually reserved for those with serious mental illnesses, and hand legal decision-making power to someone else. The practice is highly controversial, and some critics argue that it unfairly strips people of their rights, while proponents claim it is often the best option for those experiencing crisis.

“CARE Court is really not a replacement for conservatorship,” said Jason Elliott, Newsom’s top advisor on housing, adding that it is a “new tool.”

A person would not have to experience homelessness to participate in CARE Court, and families, clinicians, counties, behavioral health providers and first responders could all request implementation of a plan. Participants could include those who were just arrested and released, or are exiting a short-term involuntary hospital hold. A plan could be ordered to last for 12 months, with the possibility of a 12-month extension. If unsuccessful, a participant could instead be hospitalized or ordered into a conservatorship.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said the plan would help alleviate “one of the most heartbreaking, heart-wrenching and yet curable challenges that we face in our communities and on our streets.”

“For a community, a population of individuals who lives in the shadows, lives often without voice, today is about lifting them up and prioritizing their needs,” Ghaly said.

Ghaly said the new program will focus on clinical services for people experiencing psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, along with treatment plans for substance abuse disorders. Another important element of the plan is providing housing services, Ghaly said.

Though the plan so far is just a policy framework, the administration said it is working with the Legislature on a bill that would codify the proposal.

Elliott said it is imperative that lawmakers work quickly to pass legislation so the plan can become law. The administration is also weighing whether to include the proposal in the budget, which would be the fastest way to implement it. The deadline to pass legislation is Aug. 31, but the Legislature approves the budget each year in June.

“We don’t have any time to waste here,” Elliott said.

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