A dramatic new idea for addressing homelessness | Vince Bzdek

Californians are fed up.

A quarter of the country’s homeless population — about 160,000 people — lives in California, and angry voters have had enough.

A friend of mine who reports in California put it this way in a recent story: “Here, in the political capital of Blue State America, even the homeless cannot believe how many homeless there are.”

A candidate for mayor in Oakland said the state is collapsing under the weight of the crisis. It’s “Mad Max” in Oakland, he lamented, “with encampments and open-air drug markets that rival any third-world country.”

All California’s problems are bundled together in homelessness, my reporter friend Scott Wilson observed. “Homelessness braids together drug addiction, exorbitant housing prices, a history of high prison populations and a legacy of broken promises to the mentally ill — in short, the most pressing social policy concerns confronting the nation’s most populous state.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, seeing the writing on the wall, has thrown out a radical new idea in response to the cry for more accountability from local and state government. And California is such a bellwether for so many things in this country, good and bad, I wonder if other states might be trying out this idea in the near future, including Colorado.

Gov. Newsom and state and local governments want to focus more resources on the mental illness that afflicts so many homeless people. Newsom’s plan is to create an entirely new legal process to compel the mentally ill into treatment.

The idea, known as Care Courts, would be to create a new branch within the civil court system where those suffering from severe mental illness and substance abuse disorders could be brought before a judge. Rather than face forced commitment or imprisonment, they would receive a treatment plan and be a appointed a “Supporter” to oversee their care.

The Care Court idea is a statewide system designed to keep the mentally ill out of criminal courts. It’s essentially a structure that recognizes that mental illness should be treated as mental illness, and crime as crime. It’s a structure that recognizes the difference, and finally institutionalizes it.

Golden, Pueblo, Fort Collins, Cañon City, Brighton and Centennial are already trying out versions of so-called Mental Health Court. Aurora, Denver and Lakewood are beginning to experiment with some form as well. 

Debris and belongings line the street at Denver’s Liberty Park after a weeklong homeless encampment.

One reason the idea grabbed my attention is because just last week I heard a law enforcement official in Colorado Springs say he ran the biggest mental health facility in the city, the El Paso County Jail.

As I see it, the Care Courts idea builds on one of the most successful efforts police departments have launched in recent years to distinguish the mentally ill from the criminal.

In Denver, the civilian-centered Support Team Assisted Response program sends pairs of mental health clinicians and paramedics to low-level, nonviolent situations after a 911 dispatcher screens calls and determines the appropriate response. Before the program was launched about two years ago, police officers without any mental health training responded to all those mental health calls and more often than not, the mentally ill suspects ended up in jail.

A year into the program, STAR teams had responded to more than 1,600 calls, according to recent reporting by Denver Gazette reporter Julia Cardi.

Of those responses, 476 homeless people were contacted in encampments and 111 people were connected with services through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, The Gathering Place and the Department of Human Services. Social worker and addiction counselor Carleigh Sailon said although 45% of people contacted were not yet ready to consider social services for their situations, 33% of calls resulted in transport to homeless shelters, crisis centers or other services.

None of those redirected calls resulted in arrests. Let me repeat that, None. Zero, Zip, Zilch, Nil, the Big Goose Egg.

The approach, in other words, is already working wonders on the police side of the equation, which makes me believe it would also work wonders on the justice system side of the equation .

I’d expect Care Court to have the same rate of success in finding treatment for those with mental illness who come into the justice system. In fact, Care Court would compel the 45 percent contacted by STAR teams who said they were not ready for help to immediately accept treatment and housing and care.

The program would require them to get treatment or face serious consequences such as being referred to a conservatorship, where the court essentially appoints someone else to be responsible for the mentally ill person, either a relative, state entity or a public guardian, with the power to commit them to a mental health facility if necessary. 

The proposal already has generated significant opposition from civil rights groups and some medical associations who say it is coercive. Critics blast the proposal as “involuntary treatment that would strip participants of their personal freedoms while doing little to help them find housing,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Critics also said Newsom’s effort would exacerbate racial disparities in the justice system.

I’m not so sure. Not to have some teeth in the effort to get people treatment is, in the words of one politician quoted in Wilson’s story, “impractical compassion.”

I saw a similar phrase recently that got my attention, from that Oakland mayoral candidate mentioned earlier: “performative altruism.” Altruism practiced by politicians for show, to make us feel better, rather than altruism that actually accomplishes something.

I worry that we’ve been tackling homelessness for far too long with impractical compassion and performative altruism.

To let someone who has mental illness or an addiction disorder languish on the streets or in a prison is not compassion, it is negligence. To get them help is compassion. To require them to get help and a long-range treatment plan is practical compassion, if of course there is enough treatment available, as well as shelter if they are homeless. Those need to be a firm prerequisite. 

But I see Care Court as a solution aimed at the mentally ill, not aimed at making all of us feel better about the mentally ill or the homeless. It’s for them, not us.

If we really want to end homelessness, rather than sustain the status quo, and get the mentally ill who are homeless off the streets and onto the road to better lives, it’s time we demanded practical compassion of ourselves, and did away with the impractical.

And it is absolutely time for us to decide once and for all that mental illness is not a crime.

#dramatic #idea #addressing #homelessness #Vince #Bzdek

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