.Mental Health Advocates Rate Prop 1 a Zero

Mental health and peer support specialists say Gov. Newsom’s ballot measure falls short

Julia Ford was in the third trimester of her pregnancy when she moved out of an abandoned school bus in Oakland and into the Healthy Babies Project transitional housing. The shelter came with a treatment program founded by Majeedah Rahman.

“I kept hearing about it and finally I went and stayed there for a year,” Ford says. “I knew I couldn’t be pregnant and using drugs.”

Ford credits her baby—whom she named “Majeedah,” after the program founder—and the structure of the program for her eventual sobriety. “I worked the whole program, addressed old wounds connected to why I used drugs from when I was raped,” she says. “I got clean and was able to breastfeed my baby.”

Ford says it worked because she did it on her terms. “When you force someone to do alcohol or drug treatment against their will, they’re going to rebel and use again,” she says. “It only works when you want to do it.”

Ford’s mother, 85, is conserved in a locked facility by the state of California. Her daughter, Majeedah Wesley, became homeless during her first year of college but now stands tall as a college graduate and a career woman. It’s this lived experience that has made Ford a fierce opponent of Proposition 1, Gov. Newsom’s ballot measure that he calls “Treatment Not Tents.” 

If passed, Prop 1 would divert funds from the Mental Health Services Act that advocates say help with already underfunded county and city programs for voluntary care and treatment, while lowering the threshold for conservatorships and involuntary care.

Wesley, now 27, remembers her mom working through the early phases of recovery. She also remembers her mom’s roughly yearlong relapse while she was in elementary school, which is part of the process for as many as 85% of recovering addicts.

“I didn’t understand poverty and racism like I do now, but I knew I wanted my life to be different,” she says.

Wesley went to a community college in Long Beach and stayed with a relative until she was kicked out after she was asked to pay more rent than she earned on work study, which ultimately led her to a youth shelter in Hollywood. While Wesley is grateful she had a place to rest her head at night—a place she shared with people who aged out of foster care and others with a variety of challenges—she remembers watching people unravel in front of her. 

“A lot of people were sober when they first arrived and on drugs a few weeks later,” Wesley says. “The thing about shelters is that you have to leave first thing in the morning and can’t come back until night. I had 15 credits at school, two jobs and I was in student government, but a lot of the other people didn’t have those things. They have to fill up a whole day on the streets.”

With Prop 1, Gov. Newsom presents what appears to be a low burden on California taxpayers by, as he says on his website, “refocus(ing) billions of dollars in existing funds to prioritize Californians with the deepest mental health needs, living in encampments, or suffering the worst issues by creating housing settings where over 11,000 Californians with the severest mental health needs can live, recover, stabilize and thrive.”

While the proposition also promises $1 billion to veterans experiencing mental health issues, chemical dependency and homelessness, many mental health workers, advocates and people like Ford profess serious reservations or outright opposition.

Karen Vicari, policy director of Mental Health Care America of California, says the diversion of 30% of funds from programs and services at the city and county levels will have serious consequences and will fail to address the core problem.

“Over half of California renters are severely rent burdened, which means that a large unanticipated bill puts them at risk of homelessness,” Vicari says. “California’s homelessness is directly related to affordable housing, and the numbers will rise until we have a significant amount of affordable housing.

“Prop 1 will not solve homelessness,” she says, “and taking away 30% of MHSA [Mental Health Services Act] funds means programs like outpatient services, wellness centers, peer-run services—which are known to be highly effective—will be first on the chopping block.”

A bond portion of the proposition would fund treatment facilities to be built by private corporations. It’s unclear how the treatment within the building would be funded. Vicari says Prop 1 resembles past legislation that has fallen short.

“If we look at what happened with ‘No Place Like Home,’ which was authorized by voters in 2018,” Vicari says, “the same amount of money, $1.9 billion, was authorized and they built about 1,700 residences. If we compare that to 180,000 unhoused people in California, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

Maurice Byrd is a harm-reduction therapist who provides support and counseling to unhoused people struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse challenges. Byrd says that the proposition is a clear example of legislated classism that doesn’t jibe with the best practices of harm reduction. Additionally, resources are being diverted from the overtaxed facilities that are turning away or waitlisting people in desperate need of help.

“This is a way of infantilizing poor people whom folks might disagree with the way they live their lives,” Byrd says. “Last week I wrote a 5150 [an involuntary treatment order] for someone who was in very bad shape, who couldn’t keep her clothes on, who needed support—and the San Francisco police turned the person away.”

Even as San Francisco documented 806 overdose deaths in 2023, Byrd says the city’s treatment threshold is far too high. “There are some people who would benefit from hospitalization, even if it’s just a stabilization, and those people are being turned away,” Byrd says. “This prop is asking cities like San Francisco to make a 180-degree turn. I dare you to call TAP [Treatment Access Program] right now and ask for residential treatment. I can almost guarantee they’ll tell you to call back tomorrow.”

Byrd says that if Newsom had talked to people like him, who are in the trenches doing the work, he would have recommended things like safe drug consumption sites, which he says prevent overdose deaths, reduce harm and make communities safer. And he would have recommended a lower threshold so people can voluntarily get the mental health care they need when they’re ready to get it.

“We don’t want people waiting for access to treatment,” Byrd says. “If they show up and someone says, ‘I know we asked you to change, but we can’t help you,’ that’s the biggest contradiction there is.”

Gigi Crowder, the executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness Contra Costa, says she’ll likely vote for Prop 1. NAMI California is a co-sponsor of Prop 1. “Do I think we could have done a better job in designing something to fit the needs of Californians with the most severe mental illness? Yes,” Crowder says. “I don’t think we really need to take money from one pot that’s never had enough money to put it into another one.”

She adds, “I think we’re going to hear from counties that they don’t have enough money, but some of this legislation will allow us to have more accountability for counties. The biggest piece is that there will be more money for beds for individual family members.”

LaTanya Ri’Chard is a certified medical peer support specialist and domestic violence advocate who is skeptical of Prop 1. Ri’Chard credits the peer movement for connecting her with the support and resources to recover from an opioid dependency and accessing the mental health care she needed to get the proper diagnosis. She now pays it forward by leading groups and support services for other Californians who are navigating similar challenges.

“This proposition is going to ruin the peer movement,” Ri’Chard says. “It’s going to ruin mental health. They’re not seeing the people that are not out on the street because they’re using peer and county-run mental health services—the people that are going to work, making a living, getting our services. Those people are stable. Take that away and there are going to be more unhoused people, more people using substances, unable to get to and keep jobs.”

1 COMMENT

  1. My name is Malik iam the nephew of Majedah Rahman we are trying to raise money for her so she can stay in her home. Her health is failing and she is alone. She has helped a lot of people throughout her life so any help is appreciated.
    Any help would be appreciated

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