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Can a $6.4 billion mental health ballot measure solve California homelessness?

Ethan Varian, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

To compel more homeless people into treatment, Proposition 1 backers point to two recent reforms being phased in across the state.

The first is CARE Court, a new program allowing health care professionals, family members and others to petition judges to order some homeless people into mental health programs. The second is a state law that went into effect this year changing conservatorship rules to force more homeless people unable to provide for their basic needs into involuntary care.

What are the arguments against Prop. 1?

Disability rights groups argue the measure and accompanying mental health reforms represent a potentially dangerous regression to the inhumane forced treatment of the past.

Some taxpayer groups say issuing new bonds would inevitably lead to wasteful spending and burden the state with more unsustainable debt as it’s already struggling to balance its budget.

At the same time, local officials worry the changes to the Mental Health Services Act funding could force cuts to some existing county mental health programs and staff.

Susan Ellenberg, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, is worried less money for programs to treat residents’ mental health disorders before they become serious could hamper the county’s effort to prevent homelessness. She also said the changes would require the county to give up $9 million to support state-run programs.


Who supports the measure?

Proposition 1 has won support from various business, labor, construction and health care groups, including the Service Employees International Union and Kaiser Permanente. As of Jan. 24, backers had reported raising more than $16 million in campaign contributions, while opponents had collected just $1,000.

The measure appears to have the early support of voters, with 68% in favor, according to a December poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Proposition 1 needs a simple majority to pass.

Alison Monroe, of Alameda County Families Advocating for the Seriously Mentally Ill, said the measure might have saved Diana Staros, whom she took care of as a teenager, from overdosing in an East Oakland laundromat last year at the age of 28.

Staros was living at a residential care home in Oakland when she died. Monroe believes Staros needed more intensive treatment for schizophrenia in a locked-door facility, but she said few such options were available in Alameda County.

“She probably would not have favored that at all and said that she’s being locked up,” Monroe said, “but at least she’d be alive.”

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