Homes Not Jails: Advocating at the Intersection of Mental Health, Homelessness, and Threats to Autonomy

Monica Porter Gilbert, J.D., Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Luke Sikinyi, Alliance for Rights & Recovery, Siya Hegde, J.D., National Homelessness Law Center, Claire Canestrino

The federal government estimates that over 650,000 Americans are experiencing homelessness and that more than 20% of them has a serious mental illness, compared with just 5.6% of the general population. As communities across the country face ongoing housing shortages and increased unsheltered homelessness, too many are turning to reactionary policies to criminalize or institutionalize people with mental health conditions who are living outside. These include California’s CARE Courts, New York’s Kendra’s Law, and the Cicero Institute’s model legislation to criminalize homelessness. All of these and more will face a significantly changed landscape as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. Grants Pass. [note: Johnson v. Grants Pass was argued on April 22 and a decision is expected by the end of June.]

Speakers on this panel bring varied and deep expertise at the intersection of mental health, homelessness, institutionalization, and criminalization. In this moderated roundtable discussion, speakers will first provide historical context of the systemic failures that have led to where we are now. Then, a deep-dive on California’s CARE Courts – which seek to increase forced treatment and decrease autonomy – and updates on legislative efforts to increase civil and criminal confinement at the state and federal levels. Panelists will discuss how civil commitments have become proxies of the criminal system and examine alternatives to law enforcement and the courts. Workshop participants will be invited to participate throughout, to report on what is happening in their communities and collectively brainstorm ways to get involved in advocacy and change harmful narratives at this intersection.

Learning objectives for the workshop include:

  • Understand the historical context and harmful narratives that have led to current threats of increased forced treatment and institutionalization.
  • Gather updates of high-profile state and national threats at the intersection of mental health, homelessness, institutionalization, and criminalization.
  • Meet advocates who are working on this intersection from different perspectives, to identify potential partnerships and ways to get involved.
  • Collectively strategize next steps for advocacy at local, state, and national levels.
  • Be empowered to advocate against ongoing threats and to push instead for systems that ensure autonomy, dignity, and choice.