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California Voters May Be Asked To Steer Homeless To Services

Homeless people stand among their items along 17th Street in San Diego, Sept. 19, 2017.
Associated Press
Homeless people stand among their items along 17th Street in San Diego, Sept. 19, 2017.

California voters could decide next year whether to create new county courts to steer homeless people to mental health and drug addiction treatment programs.

Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat, proposed a ballot measure on Thursday aimed at providing services to people who commit crimes like defecating in public or using drugs.

"When someone breaks the law, it should be enforced. However, certain criminal acts should be treated not as something meriting harsh punishment, but as a 'cry for help,'" the introductory text to his proposed ballot measure reads.


The text still needs approval from the state for Gatto to start gathering signatures, and it would need signatures of roughly 620,000 Californians to make it onto the ballot. As of now, Gatto has no large donors willing to bankroll a signature collection campaign, but he hopes to attract some.

His proposal comes as California is in the throes of a worsening homeless crisis, with a growing number of people living on the streets in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where Gatto is from.

RELATED: What San Diego Can Learn From LA’s Effort To House The Homeless

Gatto's bill would require every county with more than 100,000 people to set up a specialized court that can steer people to services. Anyone arrested for committing crimes ranging from indecent exposure to defecating on public transit could be sent through the court if their behavior is determined to be a result of economic hardship, mental health or drug addiction.

The courts would then help people access housing, counseling and treatment or mental health services and prescription drug help.


Gatto said he views the measure as primarily targeting people who are suffering from mental illness rather than people who are on the streets for other reasons, like economic hardship.

He's proposing taking funding from the "millionaire's tax" that Californians approved in 2004, which taxes income of more than $1 million at 1%, sending the money toward mental health programs. Twenty percent of that money would go to the county courts under his proposal.

RELATED: San Diego Homeless Program Funding Is ‘Unsustainable,’ Budget Analyst Says

The state has faced criticism in part for being slow to deploy money under the Mental Health Services Act, which brings in well over $1 billion annually. Gatto said he believes many of the services people need already exist and that this ballot measure would help people access them.

Many California police officers are struggling to enforce laws affecting people living on the streets, he said.

"A lot of these police forces are demoralized," he said. "They want to do something about the problem but it's a matter of giving them the resources and the place to put those individuals."