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Officials look to expand conservatorship law to get homeless into care

The growing homeless population is getting out of hand for providers and city leaders. Now some want to create a new way to help those who can't help themselves. KPBS reporter Tania Thorne says it would mean changing conservatorship laws.

When you hear “conservatorship,” you likely think of Britney Spears and the Free Britney movement.

Last November, a judge put an end to her 14-year probate conservatorship, which meant her father was assigned to care for her and manage her assets.

But there’s another type of conservatorship that some lawmakers see as a tool to combat the homelessness crisis.

The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, or LPS Act, allows a judge to appoint a conservator over a person with a mental health disorder.

“We're not talking about an extremely wealthy, very famous celebrity, ” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. “We're talking about the sickest and most vulnerable people that live on the streets of San Diego and on the streets of cities across the nation.“

Gloria wants to expand the LPS Act to force more mentally ill homeless people to go into treatment.

Currently, the law says people who courts rule as “gravely disabled” can be placed under conservatorships and put in a healthcare facility, even if it’s against their will. Gloria wants to expand that definition.

“A portion of these folks end up in the criminal justice system, which I hear very clearly from the public, they are not comfortable with," he said. "There has to be some choice other than leaving them on the streets or incarcerating them in prison. We have to have a better option."

But some providers say that even changing the law and putting more homeless people under conservatorships doesn't change that there are not enough places for them to go.

“How does anything change the day after that law is signed if we don't have more treatment beds, more housing, more funding for services?” said Michelle Cabrera with the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California.

Cabrera said people stand a better chance at long-term recovery when they enter into services voluntarily.

“The vast majority of people, including people with serious mental illness and or substance use disorder needs, voluntarily and willingly accept both services as well as housing when it is offered to them," she said. "Our problem in California is that we have a major deficit of housing that meets the needs of very low-income Californians."

Services are scarce right now, said Greg Anglea, the CEO of Interfaith Community Services, which provides supportive services in San Diego.

“Far too often we have to ask somebody where did you sleep last night and is it safe to sleep there again because help is not available today,” he said.

He said addressing conservatorship reform before expanding resources is a backward way of thinking.

“Until we have access to these resources, taking away people's rights who want to access those resources, but who can't, is going too far and it is not something we would advocate for,” he said.

Keri Souza has been homeless since 2016 and knows she has a mental illness.

“I let them know that I have a mental illness and that I need help with my medication and that I need to have an eval, but I don't think a lot of people know to say that,” she said.

She questions what will happen if someone rejects a conservatorship.

“What if you don't want to do what they're asking you to do?“ she said. “Is that going to affect me negatively? Am I now not going to get the services that I need? That would be pretty pertinent.”

Every Wednesday, Souza goes to a Humanity Showers event for a shower, food and clothes.

Jordan Verdin, who runs the program, is worried that conservatorships could violate people’s trust.

“Coming out here and speaking to people, you’ll see a lot of the underlying issues are really deep-rooted in trauma and displacement," he said. "These policies will actually perpetuate the trauma deeper by displacing them and removing them from their communities.”

But Gloria said the problem can’t continue as it has and something has to be done.

“San Diegans see this every single day, people who are clearly not capable of caring for themselves being left on the streets where they're vulnerable, sick, in some cases dying,“ he said. “It's absolutely unacceptable, we have to do something different and that's why we need to change our state's conservatorship laws.”

He will spend the next year working to change the law.