Gina Perez breathes a sigh of relief. The San Fernando resident just heard the news that a new law that could help her mentally ill homeless son survived a legal challenge.
The California Supreme Court declined to block CARE Courts, allowing the new program to remain on track to be rolled out in six counties this fall and the County of Los Angeles later in December. CARE stands for Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment. Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall, the law will compel severely mentally ill people to get professional help for schizophrenia, psychotic disorders and substance abuse.
Disability rights advocates challenged the law’s constitutionality and claimed it could lead to widespread abuse. The Supreme Court disagreed.
It’s estimated that thousands of people in Los Angeles and across California could qualify, many of them homeless. Among them is Perez’s son Joseph Zamora, a 43-year-old who’s been unhoused for years at a time since being diagnosed with schizophrenia two decades ago. Joseph lives on the streets of San Fernando and has been arrested by police several times and hospitalized various more.
“I don’t want my son to die on the streets,” says Perez, repeating almost verbatim what she said in an exclusive interview published in the Sun Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol newspaper as a two-part series in late March. Abandoned by her husband while living in Arleta around the early 2000s, Perez found herself as the only breadwinner of a family of four including three children, Mandy, Anjelica and Joseph.
A few years later, the son started using drugs. Hoping to help Joseph in the only way Perez believed she could, Perez tried some tough love, kicking him out of their home when his behavior was unacceptable. However, Joseph had no ordinary drug addiction problem. He eventually was diagnosed with schizophrenia and multiple other mental disorders. Unfortunately, the illness prognosis came too late as Joseph got caught up in a revolving door of homelessness, self-medication, arrests, jail, restraining orders and hospitalizations.
Helping Joseph has been difficult because he is an adult with some degree of functionality and independence, according to his mother. Perez says he can only be forced into short-term treatment when he represents a danger to himself or others, which has happened several times. Now CARE Court changes that.
Under the new law, qualified adults can refer a mentally ill adult individual to enter the CARE process. They include spouses and relatives like parents, siblings, children or grandparents. Others include doctors and first responders like police officers, firefighters, paramedics and homeless outreach workers.
Perez says she’s ready to assist Joseph to receive the care he needs and get off the streets for good.
In a previous interview with this paper, state Sen. Tom Umberg, who authored CARE Courts, anticipated that the law would prevail in court. He said that it would help people like Joseph and empower his relatives. “Families are desperate for something [new] to be done for their loved ones” suffering from severe mental illness, he said.
Now CARE Court is the law of the land in California.
If the rollout arrives as planned come December, Joseph could get treatment and housing for up to two consecutive years. His mom hopes her son will finally receive consistent long-term treatment, adequate housing and professional care.
“Right now we cannot force severely mentally-ill people into care,” says Perez, adding she’s pleased the law survived the court challenge. “We cannot let them die out in the streets.”
As she anxiously waits to see how LA County works to implement CARE Courts in the future months, Perez is readying for another major change also in December. While working full time and checking up on her son daily to feed and encourage him to take his medications, Perez has been studying to get a master’s degree in Chicano/a studies from California State University Northridge. That’s the same school where she earned a bachelor’s five years ago and now works in the Financial Aid Department.
“I wanted to graduate with my master’s this summer but it’s hard with work and taking care of my son,” she says. Perez visits Joseph daily where he hangs out, near the intersection of Hubbard Street and Glenoaks Boulevard.
“He’s still struggling and refuses to take his meds,” she says after a recent visit. “He hasn’t taken a shower in about a month.” On the other hand, his appearance improved thanks to a barber that recently gave him a haircut. “His beard is also groomed,” she says. “It’s a good thing.”
Empowered with another degree, Perez plans to serve society in a new way. “I know that CARE Court is going to help my son, but my advocacy will continue to help him and my community in learning more about the new law and pushing for more changes and legislation to help mentally ill individuals.”
Her fight for her son is inspiring. I’m hoping that this program will help her son. The system really is disappointing, because if someone can’t advocate for themselves they will not get the help they need. I’m glad he has his mom to advocate for him and find the help he needs. We need more people like her and I’m hoping for the best for her and Joseph.
Comments are closed.