By Special to San José Spotlight
In San José’s latest homeless census, over 40% of our unhoused residents reported suffering from a form of mental illness. Within that population, those with severe mental illness are often shuffled in and out of jails and hospital beds. Our most vulnerable are criminalized or left to languish on the street, sometimes causing harm to themselves or others rather than receiving necessary care and treatment.
The lack of connection to proper mental health services highlights how our current systems are failing those who are most in need and our community at large. Santa Clara County cannot wait any longer to join counties across the state and adopt Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), also known as Laura’s Law.
Laura’s Law was passed in California almost 20 years ago to assist individuals with untreated severe mental illness, allowing counties to mandate intensive court-ordered treatment for individuals with a history of violence or frequent hospitalization. Nineteen years after its adoption, 19 counties in California have implemented Laura’s Law, including our sister counties San Francisco, Alameda and San Mateo. We now have the opportunity to implement this important law here in Santa Clara County.
Laura’s Law can serve as an essential bridge to recovery and end the cycle of repeated hospitalizations, homelessness and incarceration. It is a critical tool that addresses the small population of individuals with severe mental illness and provides them with proper and effective long term care.
The lack of proper facilities and tools such as AOT forces too many families in Santa Clara County to care for loved ones suffering with severe mental illnesses even though they are not professionally trained or equipped to do so. In my own experience as a San José police officer, I regularly responded to calls from distraught family members who were resorting to their last option of asking for their loved ones to be removed from their homes because that person was a danger to themself or family members.
Unfortunately, the lack of follow-up treatment left many of those family members on our streets, unhoused and without support. When families would ask me why we did not have more options it was frustrating to know that Laura’s Law was a valuable tool that could provide these families the support they were looking for, but our elected leadership did not have the political will to pass the law here in Santa Clara County.
The data shows that this program has seen incredible success. In the California Department of Health Care Services’ report, “Laura’s Law: Assisted Outpatient Treatment Demonstration Project Act of 2002 for the Reporting Period May 2018 – April 2019,” participation in AOT shows a reduction in violent behavior by 64%, homelessness by 30%, hospitalization by 33% and contact with law enforcement by 46%. It’s also noteworthy that 75% of individuals referred to participate in AOT opted in voluntarily. In addition, data from San Francisco demonstrates AOT’s fiscal savings: The 129 AOT participants’ cost to the city was reduced from $485,000 in monthly services to $81,745 per month once they entered AOT.
Last year, George Robles was arrested and placed in a 72-hour mental health evaluation for trespassing and maiming a beloved tortoise at a Play ‘N’ Learn preschool in San José. However after his release, he was found again on the preschool’s property with an intent to do further harm to the tortoise only five days later. With a program like this in place, it could have prevented this situation altogether if Robles was mandated for consistent treatment.
In March, the Santa Clara County Health and Hospital Committee approved to move Laura’s Law to the full Board of Supervisors with a recommendation to finally opt in. I’m hopeful the board now recognizes this essential tool our city needs to help our most vulnerable.
Please join me in voicing your support for Laura’s Law and urging that the full Board of Supervisors adopt this program on Tuesday, May 25 so that our most vulnerable communities can get the treatment they need.
To learn how you can show your support, visit: https://sjd3.com/AOT/
Councilmember Raul Peralez represents District 3, which includes downtown San Jose and surrounding neighborhoods.
This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.