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Earlier in August, the Los Angeles Times published a wrong-headed column titled “These families are flaming the ACLU as California debates mental health care.” To buttress that sweeping indictment, the Times shows five senior women and one younger fellow—all White—holding signs such as “ACLU, What’s “Civil” About Dying on the Street?”

That’s certainly a legitimate question—but one that’s clearly misdirected when aimed at the ACLU and one that obscures the damage Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Courts bill would actually inflict on the state’s brigades of unhoused people and others in dire need of mental health and substance abuse treatment.

To anyone remotely interested in attacking California’s shameful mistreatment of people who are houseless, the ACLU has been abundantly clear in advocating for “a system of voluntary community-based treatment that is trauma informed, peer-led, acknowledges and mitigates the impact of racially based over-diagnosis, and is readily accessible to all who need and desire it.”

More simply, the ACLU—and other organizations looking deeply at the situation—argue for a housing-first model that provides humane, supportive housing and then surrounds the individuals living there with the mental health and substance abuse support they need to lead dignified lives, free of the kind of coercion the CARE Court act promotes.

And that’s a perverse million miles from the article’s inference that the ACLU would rather see the houseless stay in their tents at the side of our streets. Indeed, it is a central focus of civil rights groups like the ACLU to actually address this civic, moral shame, rather than play yet another political shell game.

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That subterfuge is what’s at stake here, as the CARE Court will set up a whole new regime of courts and coercive treatment centers that will divert funding and energy from plans that will likely offer real solutions—ones that would neither throw courts, locked-down facilities and jail cells at people needing support nor leave them to rot exposed to the elements.

Experts who work with substance abusers and mental health victims have long known that the kind of coerced treatment proposed by the CARE Court bill is dangerously counterproductive. Much more effective, in their eyes, is voluntary mental health treatment and permanent supportive housing—provisions the bill ignores.

Although I’m a long-time ACLU supporter, in no way do I speak on the organization’s behalf. But as someone who spent many years supporting a nonprofit halfway house for alcoholics and addicts—and a few years working there—I know that providing a welcoming, voluntary facility for people to begin to heal is much more effective than tossing them in jail as was standard operating procedure during that era—40 years ago. 

I do understand that mayors, county commissioners, state legislators, and maybe even governors know that an election is just around that corner and that many people who might or might not vote for them are increasingly alarmed that we’ve got tens of thousands of unhoused people—seemingly permanently—living on LA’s streets. 

So, clearly, those leaders have got to do something big before we head to the polls. But CARE Court is not it—and the LA Times should know that.