What do California homeless see as success?

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Gov. Gavin Newsom’s belief that dramatic changes are needed to address California’s intensifying homeless crisis was on full display in March when he called for a court-based system that would make it far easier for unsheltered people with severe behavioral problems and/or substance abuse issues to be compelled to receive care from county public health agencies. Along the same lines this week, San Diego Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert and Jennifer Campbell called for the creation of a new Conservatorship and Treatment Unit at the behest of City Attorney Mara Elliott to expand existing efforts to place troubled homeless people in the care of a court-appointed overseer of medical and financial decisions and other activities.

The need to think big and bold is obvious, especially with the grim disclosure this week by the Downtown San Diego Partnership that the monthly unsheltered homeless count for April in Downtown and its periphery was 1,474 people — the highest number since the group began its monthly count in 2012 and more than double the tally in March 2021.

But the new plans face bigger obstacles than may be immediately understood. The first is that the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights California and other human rights groups trashed Newsom’s plan and are likely to be concerned with the city proposal as well. They flatly reject the idea that a lower bar should be set for homeless people when it comes to acceptable government coercion. They also reject the idea that statements from a first responder or a health worker who may have dealt with a homeless person in some sort of superficial way should be sufficient for their say-so to force someone into care and shelter.

These objections sometimes don’t carry the day. But they can lead to civil liberties advocates pressing for and winning concessions that greatly reduce the scope of what new programs can accomplish. This has been on striking display in San Francisco in recent years. In 2019, Mayor London Breed expressed hope that an aggressive conservatorship program could help the most desperate homeless people get “their lives back on track.” But in February, the San Francisco Chronicle reported only two people among potentially thousands — two — had been treated under new conservatorship rules.

The potential disconnect between what authorities think are smart homeless policies and what would ultimately be successful in the real world may extend beyond conservatorships. A recent analysis in the Los Angeles Times noted that several leading mayoral candidates in the June 7 primary who otherwise had major policy differences were in broad agreement on the crucial importance of using group housing to get thousands of unsheltered Angelenos off the streets of Hollywood, Venice and Skid Row. But a survey of homeless people in those communities found that less than one-third had any interest in moving to group homes. This paralleled San Diego’s experience during the crackdown on a large homeless encampment in Midway. Only seven residents among dozens accepted shelter offers.

This may be hard to fathom for people used to the luxuries of living at home — that any, let alone many, homeless people might choose life on the street with its squalor, dangers and uncertainty to life in group shelters with rules and expectations. But the idea of what homeless people may actually accept — what looks like success to them — needs to be a factor in deciding how to address their growing numbers. At a time when “homelessness fatigue” is also growing in places, this complication won’t be welcome. But it will be crucial to any hope of long-term solutions.

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