Does Homelessness Require a Special Court?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Once in a while, a ballot initiative suggests a new idea. Former Assemblymember Mike Gatto, an L.A. Democrat, has come up with one.

He has filed an initiative that seeks a middle way to dealing with homeless—by creating a special court.

Gatto’s argument is that our current homelessness policy is at once too tough and not tough enough. He feels that not enough assistance is given to homeless people. At the same time, the state and localities aren’t being tough enough in preventing the public health and nuisances—like defecation on the street—that are the product of homelessness.

The court, as Gatto proposes, is to address both problems. The idea is that homeless people could be taken to court for things like defecation or public drug use. But in this special court, the response to such offenses would be to force the homeless into plans that would involve getting them attention (to figure out the reason for their behavior) and then help for what ails them—be it economic, psychological, or chemical. If people complete the plan, their record would be expunged.

A Gatto statement laid out the logic: “It is not humane to leave people who need help on the streets. This initiative would use the existing system and laws already on the books to get people the help they need. We the people must go to the ballot box on this issue, because governments everywhere have let us down, and have let down the people on the streets.”

It’s unclear whether there will be funding to qualify the measure. But this is an idea that should at least create debate.

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