Homelessness and Mental Health Services

An unfolding crisis that will take urgency and new approaches to find real solutions.

Homelessness has been trending toward crisis levels in our region for the past several years and, despite the health of the economy both nationally and locally, with unemployment dropping to historic levels, the homeless crisis nevertheless seems to continually worsen. In 2019, the state of California experienced the largest increase in the homeless population of any state in the US, with an increase of 21,306 people, more than the total increase across every other state combined.

According to the most recent assessment, the overall homeless population in California now stands at more than 151,000.  To put that in context, that’s more than the population of the city of Fullerton.  Despite this rapid growth and the daily reminders of it that we all confront every day, California policymakers have only recently begun taking serious measures to address the crisis, and not always with the urgency that such a serious set of challenges demands.

At the center of the homeless crisis is another, parallel crisis, a statewide crisis around mental health. Data shows that people suffering from mental health issues are far more susceptible to the three main factors that can lead to homelessness: poverty, disaffiliation, and personal vulnerability. And not only does mental illness serve as a predictor and instigator for homelessness, the stress of being homeless further strains mental health, so that the stress of experiencing homelessness can materially amplify existing mental illness and compound feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness and substance abuse.

One in four homeless people struggles with serious mental health issues, and one in three has substance abuse issues. Untreated mental health and substance abuse often lead people into homelessness and prevent them from being able to hold consistent employment or maintain relationships. California needs to rebuild its mental health infrastructure and provide long-term care for those who are unable to live on their own.

It seems self-evident that a state enjoying record levels of sustained economic growth—California is now the 5th largest economy in the world– should not also be simultaneously experiencing all-time rates of homelessness as well. In North Orange County alone, the 2018 Spring Homelessness Census identified 1,714 homeless adults and 123 homeless children. Fully 41% of the local homeless population reported having a persistent mental health concern, more than double the general U.S. population rate of 18%. In addition to mental health concerns, 37% of respondents report struggling with active substance abuse and addiction, an alarming rate of 4 times higher than that of the general US population, at 8%.

As your State Senator, I will lead the way by advocating for dedicated funding for mental health facilities and outreach teams that work to get homeless people into care and off the streets. In the State Senate, I fought for legislation to require health insurance plans to provide adequate mental health and substance abuse coverage, expand access to services and ensure that people get the help they need. I will also work to improve substance abuse treatment services and crack down on abusive and poorly run facilities that only make the problem worse.

When addressing the issue of homelessness and mental health, issues of mental health parity come up. California’s parity mandate was signed into law in 1999, and a federal government passed a parity law in 2008. Yet, parity feels like an empty promise to so many Californians because most people can’t get the services they need. We need stricter enforcement of parity laws as so many Californians don’t have access to mental health care. Special interests and lobbyists have prevented parity from being effective in the past, but I want to work to change that. Mental health is crucial not only in terms of addressing homelessness, but for all Californians.  I’m proud to have authored Senate Bill 374 in 2017, which corrected an oversight in existing law by extending express state authority to the Department of Insurance to enforce the federal Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) of 2008.

I’m proud of my role in securing, via the 2017-2018 budget bill, $20 million in funding for a local program which is hard at work addressing the root causes of not only homelessness, but youth violence and post-incarceration reintegration.  The entity created by that budget grant, the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force (NOCPSTF), is a groundbreaking collaborative effort among 10 cities, which funds and aligns the work of local public safety resources as well as community-based organizations in each city that have expertise in servicing the needs of affected and at-risk populations in their respective cities. 

Now in its third year, the NOCPSTF is making real progress toward engaging and assisting homeless and other at-risk groups by engaging and serving them at an individual level that addresses their specific needs while providing a better, more comprehensive framework for moving them forward, while also serving as a model for replication and expansion into other communities.  The results of the task force thus far have been encouraging, there is obviously still a great deal of work that still needs to be done.

Tent encampments and trash piles damage the quality of life and public health of our neighborhoods and business corridors. There are currently two to three homeless people for every shelter bed in our cities.  In the continued absence of enough emergency shelter beds and treatment facilities, there are currently not enough places for homeless people to go.  As your State Senator, I will fight for state funding to build more emergency shelter facilities and permanent long-term housing, which will give cities the ability to get homeless people off the streets and under a roof. I’m also committed to working closely with all of the district’s cities to ensure we are moving toward an adequate supply of affordable housing. We need to find creative solutions, such as continuing to promote accessory dwelling units (a.k.a. “granny flats”) as a relatively inexpensive and quick way to add housing.

Further, there are still far too many homeless veterans across our communities; 3,878 in Los Angeles County, 212 in Orange County, and 175 in San Bernardino County. Veterans are disproportionately likely to struggle with service-related mental health issues like PTSD and substance abuse issues. Many homeless veterans are in and out of prison, living in a cycle of incarceration and homelessness.  Anyone who has served our country should have a place to call home, no matter the challenges they may face.

As your representative to the State Senate, I successfully passed legislation to give incarcerated veterans access to their VA benefits and resources to get them back on their feet. As a retired United States Army officer and a veterans’ advocate, I am committed to ending homelessness among former service personnel. I will fight for dedicated emergency shelter beds and long-term housing for veterans and their families and will work to get veterans the services they need.

When considering how best to address California’s homeless crisis, especially in light of the ongoing mental health crisis which is feeding it, it’s important to remember that “homelessness” isn’t a single, discreet problem, but rather the end result of a whole host of intersecting issues and challenges, and that “the homeless” aren’t a single, homogenous group, but are in fact drawn from many groups grappling with profound and chronic issues— economic displacement, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, to name a few. 

More importantly, when considering our obligation to find solutions to the problems plaguing the least fortunate and most vulnerable among it’s important to always remember that every homeless person you encounter on the streets is in fact someone’s son, daughter, brother or sister, or even a mother, father, or even a grandmother or grandfather.  Homelessness is not only the most important social crisis of our time, it’s the paramount moral challenge as well.  State government, working in partnership with California’s counties and cities, must use the tools at our disposal, while working within our means, to find meaningful and lasting solutions to the homeless crisis. 

As your State Senator, I pledge to make doing so among my highest priorities.

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