By Jen Flory | Special to CalMatters
As California’s housing crisis takes center stage, a lot of the energy around solutions has, rightfully, centered on homelessness.
Unfortunately, responses have been more reactive than proactive, likely because of President Donald Trump’s constant attacks on California, the noticeable increase in people experiencing homelessness, and politicians feeling pressure to act.
It’s good that more people are paying attention. But the sudden increase in interest means there isn’t enough nuanced conversation about the decades that got us here, or the proven solutions that are most likely to work.
Some of what is gaining traction is downright dangerous and punitive, like former Assemblymember Mike Gatto’s proposed “California Intervention Predicate Crimes and Treatment Court Initiative,” which he hopes to qualify for the ballot in November.
Gatto’s proposal would require the creation of a new homelessness court system. If people are found guilty, judges would be required to sentence people who have substance use disorders or mental illnesses to maximum sentences of one year, in mental health or drug rehabilitation facilities.
Once they serve the sentences, the court would have the discretion to keep them locked in those same facilities. Upon completion of the sentences, courts would have discretion to decide whether the individual’s criminal record could be expunged.
When asked in a recent Southern California Public Radio interview whether the ballot measure would incarcerate people, Gatto said that if a person is “shooting up at midday or littering by defecating, … their ‘sentence’ would be a stay in a mental health institution or a stay in a rehab facility.”
Forcing people into institutions is imprisonment by another name. Zero-tolerance approaches like this only exacerbate racial and class disparities in our overly aggressive criminal justice system.
Criminalizing homelessness won’t make the issue go away. It would be expensive, and in most cases, illegal.
This past December, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand a lower court decision finding that it’s unconstitutional to “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless.”
California and the country’s growing homelessness numbers are, in part, an offshoot of the criminal justice system. Forging ahead with an arrest and detain method will not ease homelessness. It will exacerbate it.
Many people living on the street distrust police because of past negative experiences. Mandating that police be the primary points of contact for individuals in mental distress is not a healthy or productive solution for the people getting arrested, or for arresting officers.
For people who truly need help, going through police, and then through court, is not the solution. People who have social work backgrounds should be the primary points of contact.
We should not divert money, nearly half, from the Mental Health Services Act, to the court system as the ballot measure proposes. Doing so would make the gap in our mental health service system even bigger.
California doesn’t have the beds or community services that would be required if we start arresting everyone who police deem mentally unwell. California can’t arrest its way out of the housing crisis.
Proposals to do so don’t address the underlying problem, which is that people can’t afford housing, whether they are living with a mental health issue or not. California’s housing crisis is such that as people get rehoused, even more people fall into homelessness.
We must pressure the state to invest in more permanent supportive housing and deeply affordable housing for people on the precipice of homelessness, and to compel local governments to comply with a mandate to get that done.
Those efforts are much more cost-effective than anything involving the very expensive criminal justice system, and it’s where we should focus our attention if we are to combat homelessness with our humanity and economy intact.
Jen Flory is a health policy advocate with Western Center on Law & Poverty, email@example.com. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.