Aguirre: Laura’s Law will hurt San Jose’s homeless residents

Laura’s Law is a statewide law that started as AB 1421 and was enacted in 2002 as a result of Laura Wilcox, a 19 year old volunteer at a mental health clinic in Northern California, who was shot and killed by a mentally ill man who refused treatment.

It allows counties the ability to force treatment onto persons refusing treatment. The actions of one individual 17 years ago are now being used to potentially affect the civil liberties of possibly hundreds or thousands of people in Santa Clara County. Forty percent of all Americans suffer from some form of mental illness

San Jose Councilmembers Johnny Khamis and Raul Peralez recently penned a letter of support to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors as it considers implementing Laura’s Law in Santa Clara County. The letter suggests strengthening conservatorship in Santa Clara County. But once you remove a person’s right to choose and take away their financial support, they become your prisoner for as long as you wish. At best, a program should be completely volunteer and not decided by someone else. This appears to be another weapon to eliminate homeless persons on the streets.

If the county declares this to be a mental health crisis, then why aren’t there enough mental health doctors, case managers, clinicians, clinics or beds here to provide adequate services for the people they’re trying to help? The state has determined that the number of psychiatric beds should be 50 beds for every 100,000 residents.

The county is far short of beds for the population. The best estimate of the county population for 2018 is 1.9 million people, which means there should be at least 969 psychiatric beds. If the county has failed to provide a sufficient number of beds, why should it consider implementing Laura’s Law? There’s also a shortage of permanent supportive housing and an emergency was declared by Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose. Yet there has been an insufficient number of housing units being built.

The sweeps conducted by San Jose exacerbates the mental illness problem by keeping people moving from one place to another with no real plan to help them escape the madness which the city creates. San Jose has failed to build sufficient extremely low-income housing to implement the housing first program. There aren’t even enough shelter beds available and the barriers are too many and too great to attract people to stay in them.

It seems that San Jose is blaming the victims they continue to harass, criminalize, victimize and marginalize by the very methods that would drive most into mental illness. The city also pays service providers large sums of money and I believe there is little oversight over how it’s spent or the results of the programs funded. There’s also no representation of the very people they claim to be servicing. There are city commissions for just about everything except people living in poverty and on the streets.

Only a handful of counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Mendocino and Kern counties, have implemented Laura’s Law.

Every county has its own measures for determining who would be eligible for admission to the program and when they might be released. The reports focus on the amount of money saved and not on the lives. The problem is that there is no real accountability of county mental health departments and so nothing changes. This is a bad law that in the wrong hands could be abused to remove people from areas where they are most visible.

First they came for the Homeless and I did not speak because I was not Homeless.

Then they came for the Mexicans and I did not speak because I was not a Mexican.

Then they came for the Muslims and I did not speak because I was not Muslim.

Then they came for me and there was no one left so speak for me.

Robert Aguirre is a former engineer that became homeless after manufacturing moved overseas and he lost the ability to practice his trade. He lived in the Jungle, which was the largest homeless encampment in the country, up until the day it closed. He has been advocating, organizing, educating and doing activism in Santa Clara County for homeless people.  

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