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California's governor wants to fight the state's homelessness problem with involuntary mental health treatment

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'Let's call it what it is, a disgrace'

Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's homeless problem has become a topic of national discussion, and the state's Democratic governor says that one way to combat it is to make it easier for the government to force homeless people with severe mental illness to get treatment.

"Let's call it what it is, a disgrace, that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is failing to properly house, heal, and humanely treat so many of its own people," Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his 2020 State of the State address, which focused heavily on homelessness. "Every day, the California Dream is dimmed by the wrenching reality of families, children and seniors living unfed on a concrete bed."

Newsom called for changes to the state's laws on involuntary treatment, calling "those out on the streets for more than a year, with complex behavioral health needs" the "hardest part of this problem."

But delivering mental health assistance to those in need of it "hinges on an individual being capable of accepting help, to get off the streets and into treatment in the first place," Newsom continued. "Some, tragically, are not. That's why we need better legal tools, ones that allow local governments, health providers, and law enforcement to more effectively help people access the treatment they need."

Such changes would have to happen "within the bounds of deep respect for civil liberties and personal freedoms, but with an equal emphasis on helping people into the life-saving treatment that they need at the precise moment they need it," the governor said.

Specifically, Newsom said that the state's legal conservatorship thresholds for compelling people to get treatment were "too high and should be revisited." He also said that it was "too hard to use" a state law "which allows loved ones and service providers to ask courts to compel those who need treatment into community-based outpatient care" and urged lawmakers to address that statute as well.

The governor also said counties should be allowed to set up conservatorship programs similar to one being set up in San Francisco, which will allow for court-ordered mental health treatment for people determined to be incapable of caring for themselves, according to the Associated Press.

While lawmakers from both parties supported the goal, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, others are concerned about whether such a proposal would actually help people who need it.

"What's the difference between that and a county jail?" Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall asked the newspaper, adding that he would work to make sure proposals are geared toward therapy and getting people's families involved.

Then, of course, there are the obvious civil liberties concerns.

"We don't need to take their civil rights away," President and CEO of Mental Health America of California Heidi Strunk told KTXL-TV regarding the governor's proposal. "We don't need to conserve them at this point, especially since we haven't even provided the shelter and the services to allow them to choose that."

"When you take a person's freedom away from someone that's a very serious issue," Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee President John Kraintz also told the station.

According to numbers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Golden State's homeless population increased by 16% last year. The state's large homeless problem has drawn repeated criticism from President Donald Trump who has previously threatened to get the feds involved if Newsom can't fix it.

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