Are California’s Proposed CARE Courts the Answer to Homelessness?

Homelessness is a serious social issue in almost every area of America today. It’s only worsened with the COVID-19 Pandemic that has forced people out of work and out of their homes. About 160,000 people in California are currently homeless, accounting for a quarter of the country’s homeless population. Tent cities are common at underpasses and near rivers, such as in Sacramento. 

Unfortunately, homelessness isn’t an isolated issue. Other serious issues are intertwined with homelessness, such as:

  • Mental health
  • Drug addiction
  • Alcoholism
  • Crime
  • Health and medical conditions

There are no easy answers for homeless assistance with so much at play. However, California Governor Gavin Newsome has a new proposal called CARE Court. It’s a bold plan to help California’s homeless population get the support it needs, but it’s not without its critics. The governor plans to spend almost $14 billion on the homeless crisis throughout the next two years — about five times as much as his previous term.

What is CARE Court?

CARE Court is designed for the most vulnerable population suffering from severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia and those who have cycled in and out of jails and hospitals.

CARE Courts would be created in a new branch within the civil court system. First responders, clinicians, outreach workers, and immediate family members would all have the right to bring someone to CARE Court. Individuals experiencing a severe psychotic disorder who lack the capacity to make proper medical decisions would appear before a superior court judge. The judge could then order the county to provide services for them. Instead of forced commitment or punishment, they would receive a treatment plan. If the person refuses to participate, they might be subject to additional court hearings and potentially a conservatorship. 

If approved, CARE Courts will become one of California’s most aggressive programs to help individuals with severe mental health and substance use problems. These groups are growing more visible on California underpasses and sidewalks and are one of the voters’ top concerns. Even though Gov. Newsom and the California legislature have recently approved billions of dollars to build housing, it might be several years before additional housing is available. CARE Courts are a quick and visible answer to one of the most painful facets of homelessness.

The Court would assign its participants a public defender and a supporter to help them advocate for them. Their supporter would serve as a personal guide through the recovery process. 

The program also has accountability measures, including sanctions for local governments that fail to comply with its requirements. The program would also divert people into stricter conservatorships or let their paused criminal cases proceed if they don’t meet their CARE plan obligations. Mayors of some of California’s most populous cities have endorsed the plan saying that it eases the humanitarian crisis displayed every day on their streets.

Opposition to CARE Court

The CARE Court proposal has summoned substantial opposition from civil rights groups and even some medical associations. They are concerned about the “coercive” nature of the process and the high possibility that housing won’t be available to those who participate. Other opponents say the program doesn’t do enough to help California’s growing homeless population. In fact, over three dozen organizations and individuals, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Disability Rights California, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, signed an April 12 opposition letter expressing their serious concerns with the program.

The 14-page letter called the proposal involuntary and coercive treatment that rob individuals of their personal liberties while perpetuating institutional racism and worsening health disparities. It went on to say that CARE Court “flies in the face of any evidence-based approach to ending homelessness” as its priority is mental health services instead of housing as the primary step toward recovery. They claim it would deviate from California’s “housing first” principles.

Yet, Jason Elliott, one of Newsom’s senior counselors, said CARE Courts aren’t another form of forced hospitalization or conservatorship. Rather the CARE Court proposal is designed to prevent individuals with severe mental illness from needing criminal courts or a conservatorship process. He estimates that approximately 7,000 -12,000 Californians would qualify for the program. A civil court judge would regularly review their case. Elliott said that Newsom “remains committed to the principles of housing first” and that CARE Court is just one of many ways someone could access shelter. Although an estimated cost hasn’t been reported, he said its administrative court system expenses are expected to be “significant.”

The fate of the CARE Court proposal is yet to be determined by the California legistlature.