The state’s upcoming homeless CARE courts are long overdue

Anyone who has volunteered at homeless shelters, handing out food, sleeping bags and more to homeless people bussed in from surrounding areas knows that the CARE courts which are due to start operating in 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 people and veterans or ex-convicts with post-traumatic stress disorder who make up the majority of homeless people in all regions of California.

Put them in so-called “permanent supportive housing,” and many get into physical fights with other residents and are then kicked out. This is one of the reasons why, despite the opening of thousands of new tiny houses, old hotel rooms and other units for the homeless over the past five years, the number of homeless remains virtually unchanged.

The simple reality is that mentally and emotionally healthy people who are unhoused because they lack money for rent are a minority in this population. The same goes for newcomers from other states where the weather is much colder.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals of all sorts showed up for years at nighttime facilities offering shelter from the winter weather, some chatting incoherently and others utterly articulate as they explained their plight. Many obviously needed psychiatric care and appropriate medication, while others could benefit from professional training or counselling. Shelters generally offered none of this.

There have long been homeless people who refuse all help, preferring to live on the streets regardless of the surrounding conditions, suspicious of anyone who tries to help them, and seeking to escape all rules and restrictions. Additionally, a criminal element preys on other homeless people and surrounding neighborhoods, most often stealing anything they find that can be sold, from expensive bicycles to catalytic converters containing precious metals.

All of these categories are filled with people who could benefit from professional help but have not embraced the idea. Since a series of court rulings in the 1960s all but outlawed forced commitment to mental institutions, there have been few ways to compel an adult to help.

That could change a bit now, unless lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and others derail Governor Gavin Newsom’s new CARE tribunals. Its Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act aims not to hire anyone or set up guardianships, but rather to see the courts compel those in need to obtain ugly. Homeless people under this new law can refer themselves to CARE Courts, which will begin in Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and San Francisco counties next year and expand throughout state in 2024.

Homeless people may also be referred by families, doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and others with whom they interact. They can also always refuse to participate. Once assessed by a CARE tribunal, however, they will undergo mental health and addictions treatment and receive supportive housing.

There is no prison, no confinement, just two years of refuge, a clinical team, a lawyer and a volunteer guide with whom they can talk regularly. Newsom calls it “a new path forward for thousands of struggling Californians and empowering their loved ones to help. We have to make it work.

However, many civil rights and disability organizations vehemently disagree. The new system, according to a letter endorsed by many such groups, “will only lead to the institutionalization and criminalization of those already isolated on the streets.”

If this all sounds a bit confusing, it is. Any homeless person who insists on the status quo can maintain it, staying in tent villages periodically razed by local authorities, with residents generally moving to other nearby sites. However, the families of many homeless people want this program to go forward.

“I worry about my son every day,” said a 77-year-old Los Angeles retiree with a 48-year-old bipolar son living on the streets. “I may know where he is one day, but the next day I can’t find him. It is driving 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. Of course, something must be done for the homeless, or this current cancer of American society will live on indefinitely. CARE’s courts may seem clumsy at first, but can also evolve into something that liberates homeless people rather than essentially condemning them to their current poverty and insecurity.

Thomas Elias can be contacted at [email protected] To read more of his columns, visit on line.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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