The epidemic of homelessness in California shows no signs of abating (and is arguably continuing to grow worse) and no viable solutions have been implemented yet. One person has come up with a very different approach to the problem, however. Mike Gatto, a former state assemblyman, has drafted a ballot measure that would institute a sort of “tough love” approach. If approved, the measure would direct law enforcement to strictly and aggressively begin enforcing so-called “quality of life” crimes such as harassment on public transportation, squatting in public buildings, drug use on the streets or public urination or defecation.
Those arrested would be evaluated to determine if they are suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues. If so, rather than going to jail, they would be forced into treatment programs. The LA Times editorial board has looked over the proposal and found it to be the wrong approach.
Frankly, it’s not humane to have anyone living on the streets. Their presence amounts to an ongoing crisis that cities and counties have yet to resolve successfully. However, while we agree that mental health and substance abuse treatment are important, we fear Gatto’s measure isn’t the solution.
His ballot measure may be a well-intentioned push to get help to people who he believes are refusing to help themselves. But sending them into the criminal justice system and forcing them into treatment — sometimes in secured facilities if they are deemed unlikely to complete the program otherwise — is not a productive approach.
The editorial goes on to list a number of reasons why this probably won’t work. And in a rare moment of solidarity, I have to largely agree with the Times editorial board on this one. The major issue with this concept is the fact that treatment programs are generally not going to help people who do not themselves want help. People generally have to hit rock bottom and seek out assistance like that on their own, and even then, success rates are disappointing and relapses are all too frequent.
Your only hope for success in a drug or alcohol recovery program is if recovery is your goal. If you are forced into a facility against your will and the only thing on your mind is when you can bust out of there and find enough cash for another bottle of Mad Dog or bag of heroin, your prospects aren’t particularly bright. The same goes for chronic mental illness, and most health experts agree with this.
Also, even if the prospects were much better than they are, where will Los Angeles send all of these people for treatment? If they had a sufficient number of beds and treatment professionals for all of those people, the majority of the homeless would already be in them. Finding resources and funding for helping the homeless remains the major stumbling block in all large cities, including Los Angeles.
I’ll admit that there’s a certain appeal to Gatto’s idea of going back to strictly enforcing laws against those “quality of life” crimes. But California’s Democrats have been fighting to reduce such enforcement of late, along with liberals around the rest of the country. The results have been easy to see. The streets have turned into toxic cesspools in areas where the homeless congregate in large numbers, with both crime and disease on the rise. Enforcing these laws is one way to get the homeless to be less brazen about violations.
But if we’re being honest, all such enforcement really does is drive the problem into somebody else’s neighborhood. It doesn’t eliminate homelessness, drug addiction or mental health issues. Getting the homeless off the streets in your neighborhood is an obvious goal, but you still have to answer the question of where you’re going to send them and how they can be transitioned out of homelessness on a permanent basis.