San Diego has long sought to strike a balance between enforcement and compassion when it comes to homelessness.

Recently, the city of San Diego strengthened its policy of absolving homeless people of minor infractions if they spend 30 days in a shelter.

A couple of years ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration took a carrot-and-stick approach by offering expanded services and shelter opportunities while taking a tougher approach to those who did not accept them or otherwise were violating the law.

Three decades ago, the county created a homeless court that wipes the record clean for people who had been cited if they have participated in various programs.

Now a proposed statewide initiative is targeted for the November ballot that would seek to crack down on so-called “quality of life” crimes such as public nuisance, public intoxication and panhandling often associated with certain homeless people.

The measure would create a network of courts across California that would attempt to determine whether the behavior was linked to economic hardship, drug or alcohol dependency or mental illness. Instead of sending the violators to jail, they would essentially be sentenced to rehabilitation, mental health and housing programs or facilities or to Muse drug treatment where they can overcome these problems.

“This measure seeks to get help for those who need it, and thereby also greatly reduce nuisance behavior on our streets,” according to a draft of the proposal.

Violators could be placed in rehab or mental health facilities for up to a year. The “California Compassionate Intervention Act” is being spearheaded by former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“It is not humane to leave people who need help to fend for themselves on the streets,” he said in a letter to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra when submitting the initiative.

“Certain acts by those people, which hurt society as a whole, should be treated as cries for help and opportunities to engage people to get them help. Doing so will also help law-abiding citizens enjoy the safe and clean use of our streets, and encourage respect for our laws.”

After going through the court process, people would have arrests and charges expunged from their records.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty, a nonprofit legal organization, blasted the proposal.

“The initiative is an embarrassing attempt to make California more visually appealing to those who have no interest or knowledge in addressing the root causes of what is happening to people in our state and country,” the center said in a statement. “This proposal would take California back into the dark ages of mass institutionalization of people with perceived or real mental illness. This is not new. California has tried this before, and it didn’t work.”

Policies to address homelessness frequently are caught up in a struggle between people who think government needs to be more lenient and compassionate and those who want more aggressive action to keep their streets and neighborhoods safe.

That debate surrounded the drafting of a pilot program in San Diego County that would make it easier for judges to order some homeless people with mental health issues into conservatorship, in the hopes they would be put into treatment they would not otherwise accept.

Some homeless advocates said the program — if executed properly — could help unstable people who could be a danger to themselves and others. Others said the overarching priority should be getting people into housing first because homelessness can create mental health issues.

Another dispute erupted when the San Diego City Council moved to ban people from sleeping in cars, except in a handful of designated parking lots. Some San Diegans, particularly those living near the coast, loudly expressed their frustration with auto-dwellers taking up residence on their streets and in beach parking lots. Critics of the law said the city was getting tough on people largely down on their luck and further criminalizing homelessness.

Details of the Gatto proposal need to be fleshed out, but it appears there are differences between the courts proposed in the initiative and the long-standing homeless court in San Diego. The state courts would determine what the remedy is for the behavior. The San Diego court essentially resolves cases after homeless people, sometimes assisted by case workers, show they are participating in programs to address the behavior that led to the citations.

Steve Binder helped create San Diego’s homeless court in 1989 when he was a public defender. The local concept became a model that spread to some 70 cities across the nation.

The San Diego court initially was created to divert homeless veterans from jail and was later expanded to the broader population living on the streets. Receiving citations and not being able to pay them — or not showing up for a scheduled hearing — created a cycle people couldn’t get out of. Binder pushed for an alternative aimed at a better outcome.

He said he wasn’t familiar enough with the Gatto initiative to assess it. But he said the answer to helping the homeless is to provide adequate resources for housing, employment and other services, not establish court programs. Binder said a court that directs people to programs for help is better than one that puts them in jails with debts they can’t pay.

Still, he said, the judicial system “is a high-priced ticket-taker to access the system.”

“The court itself cannot solve homelessness,” added Binder, who is retired but serves as a special adviser to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. “They’re not going to get anybody a job or into a home. The best they can do is refer them to services.”

Gatto’s initiative proposes financing the courts by tapping the money raised by Proposition 63, the so-called “millionaire’s tax” approved in 2004. The law puts a 1 percent tax on individuals with income of more than $1 million to fund mental health programs.

Essentially, that would be taking money meant to fund mental health services to pay for a court system — that would direct people to mental health services.


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