Disability Rights California Statement Condemning the Proposed Ballot Measure That Would Begin Mass Institutionalization and Criminalization of Homeless People with Mental Disabilities

Photo of a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk.

Stating that “public nuisances are a significant problem in our state” former State Assemblymember Mike Gatto has started the process for placing on the 2020 statewide ballot a measure that would require a person who commits a common public nuisance violation “caused by a mental health issue” to be sentenced to the maximum allowable sentence which must “be served in a hospital or other mental health treatment facility.”

 
Position Statement

Disability Rights California Statement Condemning the Proposed Ballot Measure That Would Begin Mass Institutionalization and Criminalization of Homeless People with Mental Disabilities

Stating that “public nuisances are a significant problem in our state” former State Assemblymember Mike Gatto started the process for a 2020 statewide ballot a measure that would require a person who commits a public nuisance violation “caused by a mental health issue” to be sentenced up to the maximum allowable sentence to “be served in a hospital or other mental health treatment facility.” At the end of the sentencing term, the court could require continued confinement in the facility “if continuing treatment is appropriate.”

Aside from a whole of host of constitutional and civil rights violations and the cost of creating a vast network of institutions, the measure is based on the assumption that the most critical concern with homelessness is individual’s visibility and their “nuisance behavior on our streets”. This measure suggests that sweeping homeless individuals out of our sight into institutions is the “humane” and “compassionate” way to address homelessness and care for people with mental disabilities. But, in reality, as the author bluntly reveals, the measure is intended to “help law abiding citizens enjoy the safe and clean use of our streets, and encourage respect for our laws.”

For nearly a century, California went down the road of hiding mental illness from the public view by using mass institutionalization in state-run hospitals where people were held involuntarily—many for their entire lives. Individuals living in institutions often did not receive meaningful care or treatment and conditions were widely held to be inhumane. It was an expensive and failed system. In the 1970’s California appropriately rejected the mass institutionalization of individuals in mental health institutions and promised to provide robust community-based mental health services and housing. Unfortunately, the promised community-based services and housing have never materialized. The current housing crisis has only magnified and exacerbated the problem.

Rather than fulfilling this decades old promise, we have instead criminalized mental illness and filled our jails with disproportionate numbers of people with mental disabilities. The proposed measure would do the very same thing— shift responsibility to solving homelessness to the criminal justice system and return California to failed models of institutionalization rather than robust community services and housing. We can and must do better.

Homelessness is a complex social problem that has many causes including a shortage of affordable housing; lower wages and loss of jobs that lead to eviction; inadequate public benefits such as SSI payments; and local land use decisions that limit where shelters and affordable housing may be placed as a result of NIMBY and other discrimination.

Homelessness requires comprehensive community-based proactive solutions that addresses chronic homelessness and prioritizing the most vulnerable. It also requires solutions that keep individuals and families in their homes. When these solutions are not employed and issues are left unaddressed, there are societal reactions such as increased stigma, criminalization, and discrimination against homeless individuals as this proposal does.

Solving homelessness requires comprehensive community-based proactive solutions and resources. We know what works: immediate solutions that keep individuals and their families in their homes; meaningful outreach and navigator programs; adequate, appropriate and accessible shelter space; housing first policies and expanded access to full-service partnerships for at risk homeless individuals or those at risk of becoming homeless, frequent users of emergency room services, or involved in the criminal justice system.

When these proven solutions are not employed and homelessness is left unaddressed, the result is increased stigma, criminalization, and discrimination against homeless individuals and individuals with mental health disabilities. If this proposed measure’s goal is to provide solutions for homelessness and mental health care, it does everything wrong. It is neither compassionate nor effective.

Disability Rights California rejects proposals, such as this proposed measure, that seek to criminalize mental illness, result in mass institutionalization and fail to provide resources to develop robust community services and housing. Sweeping the “nuisance of homelessness” out of sight, and confining people in institutions is neither a humane or compassionate solution to homelessness or mental health care. Rhetoric is no substitute for real solutions.