In a landmark move on Monday, October 2, 2023, Riverside City and County officials announced the launch of CARE Court, a new program to address the mental health crisis and homelessness. The initiative is the first significant update to California's mental health laws since the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967.
"Today is historic for the state of California, Riverside County, our city, and most importantly, our families," Mayor Lock Dawson emphasized. "CARE Court will serve as a lifeline for families who are desperately seeking help for their loved ones who are suffering from severe mental illness."
The program is designed to serve as an alternative to homelessness and incarceration for individuals with severe mental health issues. "This is not a panacea, but it is a new tool that puts us in a better position to assist those who are most in need," said the Mayor.
Deborah Mickelson, founder of Project Becky, took the stage to share a deeply personal story that puts a human face on the statistics. Her sister, Becky, struggled for years with mental illness and homelessness, becoming known as "the homeless lady." Despite desperate attempts by Mickelson and her family to get Becky into a conservatorship, they were stymied by existing laws. Tragically, Becky took her own life in a tent near a busy intersection just ten days after a meeting with a conservatorship attorney. "I cannot say for certain if CARE Court would have saved my sister's life, but any extra tool for families to get their loved ones the help they need is an option I wish we had," Mickelson said, her voice tinged with emotion. "This program will offer a glimmer of hope to families and individuals like my sister, providing them the hope they need for a brighter future."
CARE Court is a voluntary program that enables a broad range of people—from families to clinicians and first responders—to refer individuals suffering from schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders to specialized care teams. Marcus Cannon, Deputy Director of Behavioral Health, detailed the criteria for eligibility, which include being 18 years or older and having a diagnosis of a severe mental disorder.
While the program is a significant step forward, officials are cautious about its limitations. "Being unhoused and having behavioral health needs are not mutually exclusive conditions," warned Dr. Matthew Chang, Director of Behavioral Health for the Riverside University Health System. "The CARE Court program is designed to address specific needs and circumstances, and while it is a step forward, there are other challenges faced by the unhoused community that still need to be addressed."
Riverside's Chief of Police, Larry Gonzalez, expressed enthusiasm for the new program. "It's refreshing to see that this is not being treated as solely a police issue," he said. "However, if it takes up half a police officer's shift, then it becomes a police problem. Any additional tools are welcomed by us." Gonzalez highlighted that the program would serve as another option for referrals by their public safety engagement teams and clinicians who work with police officers.
"We are among the first counties to launch CARE Court. Today is the first day in the state of California that CARE Court will be enacted," Mayor Lock Dawson concluded, adding that more mental health reforms are on the way this year.