San Jose lawmakers voice support for Laura’s Law for mentally ill

For years, a San Jose lawmaker has been advocating to implement Laura’s Law to help the growing number of mentally ill people in need of treatment living on the streets.

Now, for Councilmember Johnny Khamis, that hope might become a reality. On Wednesday, the council’s Rules and Open Government Committee unanimously voted to draft a letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in support of the law before county officials vote on its implementation at its Dec. 17 meeting.

“Our city experiences so much homelessness, as a large percentage of the county population,” said Khamis, who has spearheaded the effort. “We don’t as a city have the tools to help these folks without the county’s help, and it is time for the county to implement this program — not just talk about it.”

Earlier this month, the supervisors unanimously approved a referral for county officials to consider options for adoption. The law would allow a court to compel services to mentally unstable individuals who refuse treatment, but would only apply to a specific group of people who have formerly been hospitalized or incarcerated as a result of their mental illness.

Named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old volunteer at a mental health clinic in Northern California who was killed by a mentally ill man who refused treatment, the law was passed statewide in 2002, a year after her death. The law mandates that severely mentally ill people undergo treatment through an assisted outpatient treatment program, which counties can choose to implement.

At the meeting Wednesday, Khamis was met with widespread support from his committee colleagues, including Mayor Sam Liccardo who said “greater action” was needed to combat the rising numbers of homeless people who are mentally ill.

“We need to be much more assertive about the reality that we’re facing out there, which is there are people who are hurting in a big way,” Liccardo said. “Continuing to be unaided in any way — it’s not helping them and it’s certainly not helping others. We do need some greater action.”

Liccardo said the city’s letter should strongly emphasize expanded conservatorship in addition to implementing Laura’s Law, considering the hurdles and limitations of the law. Conservatorship — when a legal guardian is appointed by a judge to an elderly person, or someone suffering from mental or physical illness — is a crucial component of the law, Liccardo added, as severely mentally ill individuals who are also using drugs may need more than a voluntary outpatient program.

“The emphasis would be on expanded conservatorship,” the mayor said. “There are some considerable limitations around Laura’s Law. There are certainly situations where impatient is really required to help someone with a dual diagnosis, using methamphetamine, for example.”

According to a county homeless census from this year, 35 percent of the homeless population in Santa Clara County reported substance abuse issues, while 42 percent reported mental illness. A national study, cited by Khamis and Councilmember Raul Peralez in a joint memo, estimates that around 45 percent of homeless individuals across the country are mentally ill, while 25 percent are “seriously” mentally ill.

Khamis said the law would “force people to get help,” saying the county is behind on its implementation considering neighboring counties such as San Francisco have had it in place for years. A report from earlier this year found San Francisco city and county saved more than $400,000 a month in services — an 83 percent decrease — and at least 66 percent of the participants voluntarily stayed in treatment programs.

Still, many Santa Clara County leaders aren’t convinced the law is a “cure-all” solution to the county’s mental health services, especially since the county is working to open more mental health clinics and hire providers.

While recently voting in favor of exploring options for adoption, Board President Joe Simitian expressed doubt. Trying to “push” individuals to assisted treatment won’t work if the services aren’t there, he said, and voiced concerns that the law, which helps a relatively small number of people, takes away “civil liberties” and has “due process issues.”

“Do we have the services and are we prepared to deliver them? That’s what I’m focused on right now,” Simitian told San José Spotlight in May.

But many people at Wednesday’s meeting spoke in favor of the law, saying it’s a step forward for mental health initiatives and in solving the region’s homelessness crisis.

“This is an issue that I’m very concerned about in our community,” said Marilyn Rogers, a local resident. “I’m embarrassed that Santa Clara County is one of the few that hasn’t already initiated this process. Homeless individuals who lack capacity to provide their basic human needs because of severe mental illness cannot continue to fall victim to uninhabitable living conditions, drug and alcohol abuse and risks of harm to themselves or others on the streets.”

The City Council is set to vote on whether or not to submit the support letter to county supervisors at its Dec. 10 meeting.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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