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Painted Brain | Can Laura’s Law Actually Help San Francisco’s Homeless?
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • August 1, 2014

Can Laura’s Law Actually Help San Francisco’s Homeless?

Tucked away in the San Francisco County Board of Supervisor’s June 23rd resolution, which added several amendments to Laura’s Law, is a letter in support of the mandate from Joe D’Alessandro, President, and CEO of San Francisco Travel. Like many other Laura’s Law advocates, D’Alessandro suggests that requiring severely mentally ill individuals to receive treatment will help stop the revolving door that so many psychiatric patients pass through on their way to the hospital from the streets and back again, thus reducing homelessness and recidivism rates. In his approbation, D’Alessandro laments the neglect of those who suffer from homelessness and mental illness stating, “Encountering individuals with untreated mental health issues on our streets is cited by our visitors as the most disturbing aspect of their experience. And, in most cases these visitors compassionately ask why our city does not do more to care for and provide treatment for these individuals.”

The fact that a letter from a travel company was included as part of the testimony for Laura’s Law, and, moreover, what this letter insinuates, speaks volumes about the law’s hidden intentions. The countywide mandate, which will legalize forced outpatient treatment for individuals with a history of severe mental illness, is highly ambitious in the sense that it attempts to solve the cycle of homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration that so many people with psychiatric illness are trapped in. However, it also allows for a form of de facto racial profiling to masquerade as a concern for public safety and the well-being of others.

To put it simply, Laura’s Law will allow police officers to target the chronically homeless—who are disproportionately non-white—and drag them through a time-consuming judicial process to force them to comply with a type of treatment that may or may not work. This, in turn, will fuel resentment and distrust on behalf of individuals who probably already have a cynical perception of law enforcement officials and government due to histories of racial profiling and police brutality, thus making them less likely to comply with any treatment orders. On the other hand, the individuals most likely to follow through with assisted outpatient treatment and thus benefit from Laura’s Law will have tenable support networks of caregivers, family and friends with the time, financial and political clout necessary to navigate San Francisco’s court system and ensure that their loved ones receive the best treatment available. This leaves San Francisco’s housing insecure, who typically have few if any personal connections, under the tutelage of law enforcement officials and bureaucrats, who may have their best interests at heart or who may feel the need to eradicate individuals that are considered to be urban blights and a “disturbing aspect” for the tourists that greatly contribute to California’s economy.

Besides its racial- and class-based undertones, it should be noted that Laura’s Law does not create new mental health care services or provide funding for wraparound social services, such as shelters or residential treatment centers that have seen their budgets slashed and their services strained due to the wave of austerity that followed the financial crash in 2008. Rather than address these concerns, Laura’s Law erects a lengthy, ethically questionable bureaucratic process that will divert resources to court fees and law enforcement expenditures that could be better spent on holistic care services. Given its failure to provide for additional stabilization services it is doubtful that Laura’s Law will be able to accomplish its intended goals.

Chaya Himelfarb is a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News.

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