California’s problem with homelessness is so much worse than it used to be that there’s a sense of helplessness about how intractable the situation has become in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and — perhaps to a lesser extent — San Diego. The Golden State has 130,000 homeless people, a stunning quarter of the U.S. total, and that number has increased since 2016 by more than in any other state — even as local and state governments spend more time and money than ever on the vexing issue.
Now a new state law that was opposed by just one member of the Legislature before being signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom gives authorities a valuable, if controversial, tool to lessen problems and provide aid to the most troubled homeless residents who can cause the most costly and disruptive problems.
The measure by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is the product of Bay Area leaders’ frustrations with laws that put limits on how public health officials can deal with and help homeless people who suffer from severe mental illness, addiction or both. It amends and beefs up a bill he got enacted last year that allows county supervisors in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego to set up five-year pilot programs that expand conservatorships, under which a guardian or a protector is appointed by a judge to oversee the daily life of an individual with physical or mental limitations. Without further action by the Legislature, such programs would expire on Jan. 1, 2024.
The law allows these counties to seek to force individuals into first temporary 28-day housing conservatorships and then six-month housing conservatorships after an eighth 72-hour involuntary detention in a 12-month period. Such conservatorships could be requested by the sheriff and by officials with mental health and social services agencies, who are required to establish the necessity of the action with a report on the targeted person’s history. The law includes provisions meant to preserve due process rights by allowing individuals to challenge authorities’ decisions in court. On balance, the measure reflects Wiener’s conviction that it’s “beyond inhumane to sit back and let these people die when we have the ability to help them.”
But that argument was rejected by the ACLU of California, the California Public Defenders Association, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Disability Rights California. These groups depicted the proposal as an unwise retreat from individual rights and questioned whether the three counties could provide the services necessary to making housing conservatorships work.
The latter concern is worth considering, given the struggles of local governments in providing adequate homeless facilities. But Wiener says that the standard requiring that only individuals who have faced multiple “5150” detentions could be subject to conservatorships means only about 1% of the homeless in San Francisco could potentially be affected. That’s likely true in San Diego County as well.
In an interview Thursday with The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott said conservatorships “can be a very valuable tool. There are certain individuals who need more help … [they’re] not going to be helped with a shower or services.” Elliott added that the requirement that a judge agree to the conservatorship provides due process.
The case for conservatorships is persuasive. The Board of Supervisors should begin evaluating a county pilot program as soon as possible. As Elliott said, officials need all the tools they can get to help the homeless and the communities where they live.
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