By Ani GASPARYAN
A new California ballot initiative could send homeless people to mental health and drug addiction treatment programs, rather than jail, for certain crimes.
Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto submitted the Compassionate Intervention Act for review in October. It proposes the creation of a special court in certain counties, called the Specialized Benefits, Treatment and Therapy Court, that would handle instances where a defendant’s economic need, drug use or mental health caused them to commit a crime. The court would then require them to enter the counseling or treatment programs they are determined to need.
Gatto said that if defendants successfully complete their sentenced programs, they would have their criminal record cleared.
“This initiative would treat certain misdeeds as a cry for help. It would recognize that if somebody is shooting heroin in public or they are defecating on the street, that person probably needs help,” he said. “The key thing is it would treat that misdeed as an opportunity to engage with that person.”
If the initiative’s text is approved by the state, Gatto would then have to gather about 620,000 signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.
Dr. Laura Duncan, executive director of Ascencia, a homeless-services organization in Glendale, said she’s unsure this initiative would help address homelessness.
“The permanent housing and support services … the research seems to bear out that is what really makes the most sense and is the most effective, because people do retain that housing year after year,” she said.
According to the United States Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 Homelessness Assessment Report, about 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2018. Of those, 129,972 people were from California. HUD’s 2013 report found that about 257,000 homeless people had chronic substance abuse or severe mental illnesses.
Onnig Bulanikian, director of Community Services & Parks with the City of Glendale, said he doesn’t know much about the initiative and that the City of Glendale is focusing on working with the state of California to increase homelessness funding. The City is looking to the LA County’s Measure H program, which is a one-quarter of a cent sales tax collected to go toward funding homeless services.
“Our homeless outreach team already has a Mental Health Commission through LA County,” he said. “So we have the police department, LA County Mental Health and the Parks Dept. Community Services working with Ascencia and the nonprofit agencies that serve the homeless population.”
He added that if they receive a complaint they try to get their homeless outreach team to intervene.
“There are a number of service-resistant homeless individuals in LA County, but our outreach teams from Ascencia and our police department are aggressively working with them to get them help and the services that are offered,” Bulanikian said.
Gatto said that a certain component of treatment for homeless people has to be involuntary, and that once they are in the system for committing crimes, they should be getting the help they deserve.
“With homeless people, I think society has in many cases abandoned them and we don’t get them the help they need,” he said.
Duncan expressed concerns with how treatment would be enforced.
“When [homeless] people refuse to access all that’s available, how are they going to be monitored when they’re not in jail and have no place to live?” she asked.
She added that homeless people are more receptive to treatment after they get into permanent supportive affordable housing. She said about 80% to 90% of people stay in housing once they get it.
“The one thing I can say that I think really saves lives, it really gives people back their dignity, that really motivates them to want to improve … is when they get back into housing,” she said.
According to Gatto, he is currently soliciting amendments from the public and homelessness experts while he still has 30 days to amend its text. He said that he believes people who have considered the issue of homelessness believe that the government has not done enough to address the issue.
“The existing solutions tend to focus on [only] the economics of homelessness and I think that is a mistake. I think it’s much more complex than that,”
He added that there are other ways to engage people and this initiative would recognize a cry for help and society should provide that person the help that they need.