District Attorney introduces ‘humane’ plan to reduce crime against and by mentally ill homeless people

Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, center, and  Gavin Newsom, right, talk with Freda Childs.
Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, center, and Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, talk with Freda Childs in 2020.
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Proposals were presented at symposium attended by service providers, law enforcement and others from across the county


The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office is proposing a new type of court, legislative changes and other strategies to help homeless people with mental illness avoid incarceration and receive psychiatric help.

The plan is part of what District Attorney Summer Stephan called a three-tiered Homeless Enhanced Legal Program, or HELP, that would include diversion programs before and after charges are filed against a homeless person facing a low-level offense.

The idea would be to get people help upstream, before they face serious charges, and also help them from becoming repeat offenders.

The DA’s Office also supports legislative changes that would allow more people to be held for psychiatric evaluations and technology that could connect people with shelter beds as an alternative to jail.

The proposals are the latest in several steps locally and statewide to address mental illness and homelessness.

In San Diego, the city has launched an extended outreach to connect more people on the street with services to help them overcome issues related to their homelessness while the county and city have collaborated on a new shelter in the Midway District that specifically addresses homeless people with mental issues and addictions.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed the creation of CARE (Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment) Court as a way of mandating treatment for people with debilitating psychosis while California Republicans in the state Senate and Assembly have proposed a package of bills that address homelessness and mental health.

Under the first tier of the program, Stephan said, law enforcement officers will be given a list of crimes and data points that would allow for street diversion, meaning people facing low-level offenses would be given an option of going to a shelter, into treatment or staying up to 24 hours at a county Crisis Stabilization Center rather than going to jail.

“You’re also not giving the option of continuing to commit that crime and be on the street,” she said. “You’re giving them what I think is a humane option.”

Stephan said she is meeting this week with police chiefs and law enforcement officials to discuss the street diversion plan.

A second-tier diversion program will be offered to people after they are charged with low-level offenses, which would become part of the DA Office’s Community Justice Initiative.

Under the initiative, offenders of low-level misdemeanors such as trespassing or illegal lodging could have their cases dismissed by completing 12 hours of cognitive behavioral therapy and four hours of volunteer work in the community.

The third tier would be an addition to Collaborative Courts, which already exists for homelessness, behavioral health, drug offenses, veterans with a mental illness and for people who are repeat offenders with a history of substance abuse.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Rachel Solov said the new court, which would focus on high-risk, high-need homeless people with mental health or substance use issues, is needed because those individuals sometimes bounce between homeless court and behavioral health court when it’s not clear where they should be sent.

The HELP plan was presented by Stephan on Monday at the San Diego County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa in a symposium attended by service providers, elected officials and law enforcement representatives from across the county.

The symposium also included a presentation from Christie Bevis, program manager of Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup, which has developed phone apps that have helped cities in other states connect domestic violence survivors with shelters and services.

In San Diego, Bevis said the the app could be developed to track available shelter beds for homeless people, a process that otherwise could involve hours of work in phone calls to gather information. When shelter beds aren’t available, Bevis said the app has been used to contact donors who can fund a temporary stay in a hotel or rental assistance for someone in need.

Stephan said law enforcement officers could use the app to find a shelter bed as an alternative to jail as part of street diversion.

The need for the new strategies was backed up with a presentation that showed how homeless people were much more likely to be perpetrators as well as victims of crime when compared to the general population.

As an example, data presented at the symposium showed that from November 2019 to October 2021, aggravated assault charges were filed against 915 homeless people and 2,529 non-homeless people.

When comparing those numbers with San Diego County’s general population of 2.6 million and the homeless population of about 7,300 based on the 2020 point-in-time count, the data showed homeless people were 130 times more likely to be charged with aggravated assault.

Likewise, homeless people were 175 times more likely to face robbery charges, 514 times more likely to face arson charges and 222 times more likely to face vandalism charges.

Homeless people also were more likely to be crime victims. Data showed they were 19 times more likely to be murdered, 15 times more likely to be be domestic violence victims, 12 times more likely to be aggravated assault victims and nine times more likely to be sexual assault victims.

After the presentation, however, Regional Task Force on Homelessness Tamera Kohler said the methodology used in the report could have skewed the results. Kohler said by using the point-in-time count, which captures only the number of people who are homeless in one day, the report missed how many other people may have been temporarily homeless sometime that year.

Instead of using 7,300 as the homeless population, Kohler said the DA’s Office instead could use 38,000, the number of people who sought homeless relief services over the full year of 2020.

In another proposal, Stephan said the DA’s Office supports legislation that would allow for more people to be held up to 72 hours for psychiatric evaluation.

The change would come through a revision of the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows for the holds for people who are gravely disabled, defined as a person who is a danger to himself or herself and others and unable to obtain basic necessities.

The DA’s Office proposes changing the definition of gravely disabled to mean a condition in which a person faces a substantial likelihood of physical or mental deterioration and becoming a danger to himself or herself as a result of an untreated mental health disorder.

Stephan said the diversion programs in the first and second tiers could be implemented soon. The creation of a new court, however, will take cooperation from the court system, the Probation Department and Public Defender’s Office, as well as additional resources to fund it.

“We have already discussed this concept with the court, and I can say optimistically that the court has not said no,” she said. “The court is open to anything that brings good to our justice system.”

Poway resident Linda Mimms, vice chair of the national Schizophrenia & Psychosis Action Alliance, also spoke at the symposium and asked why so many people with brain disorders are still on the street after the state had spent billions of dollars on housing and diverting people away from the criminal justice system.

Mimms said the housing-first model that provides housing to homeless people as a first step before services has not been effective in helping people on the street with mental problems.

Instead, she advocates for a “housing that heals” model, which delivers high-quality, clinically necessary, therapeutic residential treatment and services.

Mimms also stressed the need to redefine “gravely disabled” to broaden who can be mandated into treatment.

She also argued that mandated treatment for people who cannot make decisions for themselves should not be considered a civil rights issues, but rather seen in the same way as physicians who provide life-saving treatments to stroke patients who cannot communicate.