A dramatic new idea for addressing homelessness | Vince Bzdek | Mental Health

Californians are fed up.

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

A friend of mine who reports in California: “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, and a history of high prison populations and a legacy of broken promises to the mentally ill;

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 this idea in the 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 a new legal process to compel the mentally ill into treatment.

The idea, known as Care Courts, could be brought before a judge. Rather than face a mandatory commitment or imprisonment, they would receive a “support plan” to oversee their care.

The Care Court idea is a system designed to keep the criminal courts out of court. It is a structure that requires mental illness, and crime as crime. It’s a structure that recognizes the difference, and finally institutionalizes it.

Golden, Pueblo, Fort Collins, CaƱon 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 about last week, the El Paso County Jail.

As I see it, the Care Courts have built up in recent years to distinguish the mentally ill from the criminal.

In Denver, the civilian-centered Support Team Assisted Response Program sets up the mental response of patients and paramedics to low-level, nonviolent situations after 911 dispatcher screens calls and determines the appropriate response. Before the program was launched about two years ago, police officers have not been able to attend the prison.

A full year into the program, Denver Gazette reporter Julia Cardi.

Of those responses, 476 homeless people were contacted in encampments and 111 people were connected to services through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, The Gathering Place and the Department of Human Services. Carleigh Sailon said though 45% of people contacted were not yet ready to consider social services, 33%

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

The approach, in other words, is already working on the justice side of the equation.

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

The program would require that the court appoints someone else, who is responsible for the mentally ill person, either to commit them to a mental health facility if necessary.

The proposal is already 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. “Impractical compassion is not, in the words of one politician quoted in Wilson’s story,”

The Oakland mayoral candidate mentioned earlier: “performative altruism.” Altruism is 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 impatient compassion and performative altruism.

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

But I see Care Court as a solution focused on the mentally ill, not focused on making all the people 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 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.


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