By TJ Johnston

As Street Sheet goes to press, a ballot initiative that could put unsheltered people with mental challenges under further scrutiny from law enforcement and court system has been introduced.

On October 10, a proposal called the California Compassionate Intervention Act was submitted to the state attorney general’s office. Under the plan, police would be further empowered to arrest homeless people under existing state codes — including those for illegal lodging and drug-related offenses — and divert them to a special behavioral court in their county. Ostensibly, the court would steer unhoused residents into housing, counseling and medical and mental health treatment in the state’s more populous counties, including San Francisco.

But it would also allow a maximum sentence of just under one year in facilities that supposedly have such programs — but that’s assuming these programs are available, and funding would depend on the so-called “millionaire’s tax” that voters approved in 2004. 

Former Assemblymember Mike Gatto of Los Angeles co-authored the initiative with his partner Allen Johnson. They run Actium LLP, an LA-based law firm, which specializes in litigation, transactional work, governmental advocacy and public relations, according to its website.

Responding to a query from Street Sheet, which the Coalition on Homelessness publishes, Gatto said he is looking toward the November 2020 ballot. Under state law, the attorney general has 35 days to respond to the proposal and another 35 days to amend the language. Also, it would take 620,000 signatures from California voters to place it on the ballot.

“We want to get it just right,” Gatto said. “We’re also interested in the legislature, but we haven’t seen enough fire to indicate any interest there.” 

Employing similar language state Sen. Scott Wiener used to pass his recent conservatorship legislation, Gatto wrote to Attorney General Xavier Becerra, “It is not humane to leave people who need help to fend for themselves on the streets. Certain acts by those people, which hurt society as a whole, should be treated as cries for help and opportunities to engage people to get them help.”

But should the response to these cries come from the police? Organizations, such as the Western Center on Law & Poverty, say that the state’s carceral system is not an appropriate place for impoverished people to address the substance use or mental health concerns.

“The State of California has not prioritized providing services or housing for the (approximately) 130,000 people experiencing homelessness here,” the Western Center said in a statement. “The idea that the state would now have the resources and wherewithal to create and maintain the vast network of institutions this measure would require is absurd.”

The center added, “The state must also ensure that safe, stable, and affordable housing is available to everyone. Service delivery is infinitely more effective when people are housed.”