Conservatorships Aim to Protect California's Homeless and Addicts

A law change allows other options than involuntarily committing them

The crises of poverty, mental health and opioids continue to ravage our communities. In the rare event that a solution is proposed, it’s often temporary. But California has taken a legislative step that it hopes has lasting power, and is already on the sharp rise in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego counties.

The state has seen an influx of involuntary committals to its mental health facilities in recent years, and often it’s individuals suffering from homelessness and addiction.

“California cities have a crisis on our streets, with chronically homeless individuals suffering from mental illness and drug addiction,” Sen. Scott Wiener wrote of Senate Bill 1045. “It’s not progressive or humane to let those who are incapable of making decisions for themselves die on our streets. This bill gives counties one more tools to use to help those who cannot help themselves, and get them into housing and services. The bill also ensures full due process for those the county seeks to conserve, as well as strong safeguards including review and reassessment by the county to ensure that the law is being used legally and correctly.”

The bill, which is now signed into law, begins a five-year pilot program that increases the power of the courts to place people under a conservatorship or court-ordered observation. This new law focuses on chronically homeless individuals who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, and who cannot care for themselves. 

The San Francisco mayor’s office reports that 12 percent of the people who use the services of the San Francisco Department of Public Health account for 73 percent of the costs. Most of these individuals are suffering from mental health or addiction issues.

While this new program may clean up some of the city blocks that are affected by these issues there is always two sides to a story. What will happen to someone on a conservatorship? Do they lose freedoms, money, rights?

A conservatorship is a legal arrangement which allows a responsible adult to manage the personal care or financial matters of an impaired adult person. Meaning someone else will make legal and financial decisions for someone placed into care. To get money, or make legal, and often medical decisions, a trustee must sign off on it.

While you may hope it’s not the case when those who are vulnerable lose certain rights and freedoms, it could very well lead to abuses of power by trustees. If you or a family member are placed in this situation, it would be best to speak with a reputable and experienced estate planning attorney. They can put a plan in place in case things go wrong, but even better: They may be able to allow a family member or friend to be the advocate and can set up powers of attorney, health directives and more.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration.

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