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About Mental Health

San Mateo County is among the first in the state to debut CARE Court, a program that hopes to address homelessness among those with severe psychiatric disorders, after it started taking enrollment on Monday.

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a press conference on Thursday, March 21, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA.

Established under Senate Bill 1338, the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court, also known as the CARE Court, establishes a new legal process for mentally ill individuals within the unhoused community to potentially receive assistance. Counties across California have a deadline of Dec. 1 to launch the program, and face fines of up to $1,000 for every day after the cutoff that the program is not implemented.

The program, designed to tackle California’s growing homelessness problem, is part of a broader statewide initiative from Gov. Gavin Newson, who said in September that a change in approach is necessary to address the issue.

“Continue to do what you’ve done and you get what you got. And look what we’ve got. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

San Mateo County, whose latest point-in-time counts show an 18% uptick in unhoused individuals since 2022 and a 70% uptick since 2017, said in a recent news release that local officials deem the program “key” in getting the vulnerable individuals within the unhoused communities the help they need.

Opponents of the program aren’t as sure that the efforts are worth the risk, with concern primarily focused on the potential for vulnerable individuals to be placed in an involuntary conservatorship under this program.

The ACLU of California voiced its “vehement” opposition in a statement, saying that the CARE Court is a flashback “ …to a dark era when forced treatment of people with serious mental health conditions was the norm. It would unravel decades of hard-won progress by the disability rights movement to secure self-determination, equality, and dignity for people with disabilities.”

They’re not alone in their criticism of the law either.

Jerel Ezell, an assistant professor in community health sciences at UC Berkeley, argued in a November op-ed published in TIME magazine that in view of things such as high cost of living and a dearth of affordable housing that “…the program is far from preventative enough,” and that the prospects of forced treatment amount to a “Faustian bargain.”

When asked about the criticism, a spokesperson for San Mateo County’s Behavioral Health Department said, “The focus of our team will be to engage individuals on a voluntary basis. Based on our experience, clients do better when they get to make decisions (or have the self determination) about their care,” promising also that those who reach out will receive immediate help.

“Once we are notified of petitions, or if we receive referrals for CARE Court through our BHRS phone line and email, we will begin our outreach to each case right away,” the spokesperson said.