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California just wrapped up its 2023 legislative session last week with a flurry of bills that promise to maintain the state’s status as a neoliberal hell that makes life miserable for all but the wealthiest. It’s worth remembering California has a Democrat supermajority, so much of the following can be read as a summary of Democrat priorities.
The Homelessness Crisis
I wrote back in January about the coming California “CARE” Courts and their potential for abuse.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s biggest legislative priority last year, these courts allows family members and others (such as police) to petition someone with suspected mental illness into civil courts, where a judge would order a treatment plan and require mental health departments to provide it. There are major concerns about CARE as opponents of the law have pointed out that the criteria are subjective, speculative and subject to bias.
In California, more than 171,000 people are homeless – that’s 30 percent of the national homeless total in a state that has 12 percent of the national population. And no, the homeless are not flocking to California to live the good life. Most of the homeless people on California‘s streets are Californians who were simply priced out of housing. A major study released earlier this year from UCSF’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative showed that the main driver behind homelessness in California is the increasinging precariousness of the working poor.
Rather than take action to prevent homelessness (in neoliberal California, public housing isn’t even considered, and the “fight” for affordable housing never seems to get anywhere), the state and its Democrat supermajority have settled on a policy to make the homeless disappear. While other states are criminalizing homelessness in an attempt to get the unhoused out of sight and out of mind, California is doing it under the guise of “caring.”
Now two new bills could vastly expand the ability of the state to commit homeless Californians against their will.
Senate bill 43, which is headed to Newsom’s desk, expands the criteria for the detention, forced treatment and conservatorship of those deemed mentally ill. For example, the bill adds alcoholism to the definition “gravely disabled,” which means it could now lead to involuntary hospitalization and conservatorship. The bill also makes it easier for an expert witness’ opinion to lead to the appointment or reappointment of a conservator.
California’s approach ignores the fact that it is next to impossible to treat addiction and mental illness without stable housing. In 2016, California enacted a “housing first” model in contrast to the long-established “treatment first.” The problem is any relapse means losing housing.
Now the state is going with involuntary treatment, which has been shown to be ineffective. Human Rights Watch on the many problems with California’s new approach:
Californians lack adequate access to supportive mental health care and treatment. However, this program does not increase that access.
Investing in involuntary treatment ties up resources that could otherwise be invested in voluntary treatment and the services necessary to make that treatment effective. California should provide well-resourced holistic community-based voluntary options and remove barriers to evidence-based treatment to support people living with mental health conditions and harmful substance use who might also face other forms of social exclusion. Such options should be coupled with investment in other social supports and housing.
Expanding forced treatment is a regressive, costly, and inequitable approach to addressing the structural barriers that keep communities from thriving. We respectfully urge you to reject SB 43 and instead direct resources to making voluntary treatment, housing, and other supportive services accessible to all.
A last-minute switch will also allow money from a $6 billion bond proposal to be used to construct facilities for involuntary confinement. Advocates for disabled Californians had originally supported the effort, which up until the last minute was supposed to be used solely to build ”unlocked, community-based” treatment facilities and supportive housing for people suffering from mental illness or addiction disorders.
But the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom adjusted the language at the 11th hour and California’s Democrat supermajority passed it in the state senate 35-2 and in the house 63-7.
The bond measure will now go to California voters in the Spring. The state will likely need the involuntary confinement facilities as California CARE Courts start in October.
The government refuses to attack issues that cause homelessness, such as low wages, lack of public housing, the Wall Street takeover of housing rentals and their efforts to keep rents artificially high, or the lack of a social safety net, etc. In the absence of such solutions, new “innovative” schemes keep popping up.
Nonprofiting Off of Homelessness
The San Francisco-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy is starting to take its approach to dealing with homelessness nationwide. That approach includes hiring formerly incarcerated and/or homeless individuals to corral the homeless into designated encampments and police them. More from The Nation:
UA “practitioners” or “ambassadors” guard corners and patrol Market Street, respond to emergency calls relating to homelessness, and monitor tent encampments and shelters. Some wear sunglasses and balaclavas with their uniform: a camouflage jacket emblazoned on the back with the group’s all-seeing-eye logo…
“We’re the Google or Instagram of social services,” [cofounder Lena] Miller says. She envisions the group going “from city to city,” revolutionizing the industry. Until recently, UA’s website said it planned to expand to three more cities by summer 2025—including Portland, Ore., where it’s at the center of a plan to corral the unhoused population into massive city-sanctioned encampments.
What exactly is innovative about Urban Alchemy’s approach?
UA skeptics like Kaitlyn Dey, a Portland-based homelessness researcher, argue that politicians use nonprofits to keep their promises to reduce interactions between police and homeless people without substantially changing the system. And to the average liberal city dweller, having a nonprofit administer the sweeps makes that work appear more humane than when armed cops do it. Working with groups like UA also reduces transparency—internal UA e-mails, for instance, are not subject to FOIA requests—insulating local officials should problems arise.
Urban Alchemy has faced at least six lawsuits with allegations that the nonprofit’s “ambassadors” are dealing hard drugs, making sexual advances on the vulnerable, and assaulting people on the streets.
In Other California News…
The destruction of the state’s once proud (and free) higher education system continues. The California State University system voted on September 13 to raise tuition 34 percent over the next five years. They did so despite protests from students and the faculty union. The systems’ board of trustees claim they must raise tuition for equity and access reasons, i.e., raising graduation rates among Black, Latino and Native American students.
Students weren’t buying it. From Cal Matters:
Across roughly 2.5 hours of designated time for public comments, an hour longer than trustees planned, students inveighed against the trustees for proposing the tuition hikes and reprimanded the trustees for slouching and looking at their phones during the students’ remarks. Some decried what they called the inherent racism of raising revenue through tuition hikes at a system that enrolls mostly students of color. A few admonished Cal State for not explaining how the hikes will affect students who pay full tuition. Others bitterly observed that the incoming system chancellor’s compensation will exceed $1 million.
“Students are supposed to be offered affordable higher education but instead we are slowly being stripped away of our education because the CSU fails to see us as students but instead sees us as their salary increases,” said Cassandra Garcia, the student body president at Sonoma State.
“You watch your students sleep in cars from the comfort of your gated communities,” another student from Cal State Dominguez Hills said.
“We are working numerous jobs just to be able to attend and you want to raise tuition,” said Courtland Briggs, a student from Cal State Channel Islands. “It’s pathetic. Y’all are pathetic.”
California students did not pay any tuition until Ronald Reagan’s time as governor when he cut state funding for college and universities and laid the foundation for a tuition-based system. In 1975 students at University of California schools were paying $600 in fees and tuition. With the most recent tuition hikes, Cal State students will soon be paying roughly $8,000 per year in just tuition. In-state tuition for the University of California system is $14,436, which doesn’t include fees, housing, books, etc. Those costs can bring it up to more than $40,000.
There’s no telling yet if all the California college students sleeping in their cars will get caught up in the state’s CARE courts.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a longtime recipient of money from the tech industry, is expected to veto a bill that requires a trained human safety operator to be present in self-driving trucks using public roads in the state. Back in August, one of Newsom’s senior advisers wrote a letter to the bill’s author, complaining that restrictions on autonomous trucking would undermine regulations and limit innovation.
Newsom is likely to sign into law a bill that would require judges to consider whether a parent affirms their child’s gender identity in making custody and visitation decisions. The parent’s feelings on their child’s identity would be weighed alongside factors, such as a history of drug or alcohol abuse or domestic violence, in determining the child’s well-being.
While those opposed argued the bill is intrusive, a bill headed to Newsom that would include housekeepers, nannies and other household staff in laws requiring health and safety protections is unlikely to survive his veto power due to the sanctity of the private household. He vetoed a similar proposal before, claiming that private households cannot be regulated by the state in the same way as businesses.
The Ninth Circuit Court recently ruled that prisons can use solitary confinement for as long as they would like. The ruling invalidated a 2015 settlement between the state and prisoners, which limited the hours a prisoner could be in solitary confinement and restricted its use to those who pose a danger to other inmates.
Naturally, a bill in Sacramento to restrict the use of solitary confinement died at the end the of the legislative session. The Sacramento Bee reported that ‘this is to allow time to “facilitate good faith negotiations” with Newsom, who vetoed a previous attempt at limiting the use of solitary in prisons.’
Some Good News … Maybe
On the bright side, the California legislature passed a bill that would make workers who are on strike for more than two weeks eligible for unemployment benefits. Now the only question is if Newsom will sign it into law. Hollywood writers have been on strike for more than 100 days while actors began striking on July 14. The large majority of strikes in 2022 lasted less than five days, however.