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Some Californians quickly deemed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push to create a court system to more easily compel care for people with serious mental illnesses as a potential gamechanger to reducing homelessness in the state.
Nathan Fletcher, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, isn’t in that camp.
“CARE Court got lifted up as this thing that, if we just do this one thing, everything will be OK, and everyone will be off the streets. Well, that’s not the case at all,” Fletcher said at Politifest on Saturday. “Now, I believe it will be a useful tool and it will help, just like everything we just talked about and continue to talk about on the continuum. But it is not unilaterally, singularly going to alleviate all of the suffering and poverty in the world.”
Indeed, the Newsom administration has estimated the CARE Court program will serve 7,000 to 12,000 people a year, a fraction of a statewide homeless population CalMatters recently found totaled 173,800 based on this year’s point-in-time count results.
Homeless and housed Californians alike can qualify for the program following a petition from family, behavioral health professional, friends or first responders and an evaluation by the court.
If the equivalent of 5 percent of the 8,427 people counted during San Diego’s latest homeless census qualified for the CARE Court system, roughly consistent with Newsom’s statewide estimate, it would serve about 420 people.
Fletcher said the county doesn’t yet have an estimate for the number of San Diegans who might qualify for CARE Court, but said the county is working with state officials to project the number of people who could be referred, what services they’ll need and how the county can build out those services.
County officials recently unveiled a plan to add hundreds of new community-based behavioral health beds. And on Tuesday, supervisors approved plans to help address a shortage of behavioral health workers, to establish a new fund to back behavioral health projects and on steps to potentially provide services including residential care beds on two county properties. The latter move could help address a years-long shortage of long-term care options.
Fletcher said San Diego County is the only large county in the state to have started the early implementation process for CARE Court. He expects the process will go into effect next July or August, a few months ahead of the state-mandated October 2023 deadline for San Diego.
He acknowledged that the process won’t be easy but said he supported the state move to put counties on the hook if they can’t comply. If the county can’t deliver civil court-ordered care for CARE Court participants, it could face fines of up to $1,000 a day.
“This will be clunky and it won’t be ideal and it will be hard,” Fletcher said. “But everyone who gets helped and who gets access to services, they’ll be glad that we went first.”
Mayor Todd Gloria, a fellow Politifest panelist and vocal advocate of CARE Court reforms, cheered Fletcher’s responses and acknowledged not everything will go smoothly at first.
He also said there’s more work to do.
Gloria said he’s already working with state Sen. Susan Eggman to reintroduce behavioral health reform bills, including one that aims to clarify a key definition to lower the bar for conservatorships, that were unsuccessful in the most recent session. Gloria made those reforms a centerpiece of his State of the City address earlier this year.
“CARE Court is to step in the right direction,” Gloria said Saturday. “Full conservatorship reform is necessary.”