Senator Kamlager Talks about the Intersection between Behavioral Health, Housing, and the Penal Code

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Senator Kamlager appears live over Zoom at Manny’s

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – Stating that we need to deal with issues of the intersection between behavioral health and the penal code and the criminal legal system on a daily basis, Senator Sydney Kamlager said last week, appearing via Zoom from her office.

Senator Sydney Kamlager was the keynote speaker in last week’s discussion of behavior health issues hosted by San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin at Manny’s in San Francisco.

Senator Kamlager represents nearly 1 million people in LA in some of the richest communities in the area, as well as some of the poorest with high unemployment and blight.

She noted that these issues are important to look at through an economic lens: “[I]f we care about creating sustainable communities, how do we tackle poverty? And you tackle poverty by addressing housing, you tackle poverty by addressing behavioral health and you tackle poverty by dealing with the systemic disparities that we see in our penal code.”

“I firmly believe that when we don’t have answers to housing, where we don’t have answers to poverty, where we don’t have answers to behavior health issues, we find those answers in the penal code,” the senator explained.

That is not what we’re supposed to be doing she explained, but instead, we are writing difficult questions up in the penal code, tagging five to eight to 15 years on it, and calling it a day.

“We have to not do that anymore,” she said.

Senator Kamlager listens as DA Chesa Boudin speaks

“How did we get here?” she asked.  “I think it’s incredibly simple. We live in a society that doesn’t see or value certain populations.”

The problem, she says, is that we have lowered our standards and expectations for people with behavioral health challenges.

“We have a very parochial understanding of people with disabilities. We have a very stigmatized approach and view of folks with behavioral health challenges, and we use a penal code to over-punish based on our judgment of someone’s sins that are not our own,” the senator explained.

At the same time, we have “red-lined” poor people for “generations and generations out of housing that they can afford, out of housing that they can afford that will allow them to begin to create some kind of generational wealth.”

She noted that there is a large homeless population in Los Angeles County, and 55 percent of the homeless are Black in a population that is 8 percent Black overall.

“In LA we have twin towers.  It is the largest mental health facility in the county. It is also the jail. And if you go in on any single day, you will see folks stripping off their clothes. You will see folks picking at their veins, trying to pull them out. You will see folks talking to themselves and the wall,” she said.

She also added that “here in LA, we have a housing situation where people have to use 70 percent of their income to afford housing.

“All of those are examples of how we got where we are today,” she said.

The senator then discussed some of the bills and spending measures that were passed a few weeks ago with the budget.

For example, “We now have the California dream for all home buyers program, that will give money to folks so that they can purchase their first home, wherever they are.

“We put $2 billion in flexible funding to go to the local jurisdictions, to tackle homelessness, almost $3 billion for project homekey, two and a half million dollars to fund new construction for housing,” she said.

On the behavior health front they have created both a behavioral health infrastructure program, as well as a children and youth behavioral health initiative for young folks, zero to 25.  

AB 369 is a Street Medicine for All bill, which would give those who are unhoused, access to “street medical teams that come to them where they are rather than asking folks to try to pick up the phone and make an appointment with the provider and make sure you bring your ID and take all the necessary transportation.”

Senator Kamlager told the story of Clarence.  Clarence is 16 years old, a “big big Black boy” and he is on the spectrum.

“He is a young man with disabilities,” she said.  “Clarence’s life was tough.”

He was not doing well in school, he tried shard, but was “not getting the support that he needed.”

One day he was really excited because he was going to purchase a car.

But he took out a loan “for 850 percent with 150 percent interest.  He did not even know how to get a loan and what to look for.”

Then he got caught up with the law.

“He did something bad,” the senator explained.  “The DA’s office said, we know Clarence doesn’t need jail.  We know he has behavioral health issues. We know he’s on the spectrum, but why not just go for the win—and they charged him.

“Those are the real words that a DA told his defense, and that’s what we’re dealing with,” she said.  “I think about Clarence’s story every single time I go to either my human services committee or my penal codes committee.”

She asked, “Would they have done it if Clarence wasn’t a big black boy who didn’t look 16 but looked 24?

“Would they have done it if they weren’t clouded by the perception that black men are dangerous and predatory and should be viewed as criminal first?” she added.

The senator explained, “It’s economically unsustainable to support poverty—poverty, charity does not help businesses. It does not help the property values of communities and neighborhoods. It is a drain on taxpayers.”

But she said “if we continue to look at those with behavioral health issues, those who have had circumstances that cause them to engage in some kind of criminal behavior, those who are unhoused, if we continue to lump them all into one bucket that starts and ends with the penal code and jail or probation… 

“Then we’ll be essentially dismantling our own society because we are systematically extracting folks out of our community, doing them as not being a value and saying that it makes more sense for us to pay, to scoop them away in some box with GPS monitoring and three hots and a cots, and mandatory check-ins with some person who may or may not care about their success.”

Senator Kamlager added, “I think we have an amazing opportunity to recalibrate what poverty means for us and to us and who can be more, and what that means to recalibrate what … your health looks like.”

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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One thought on “Senator Kamlager Talks about the Intersection between Behavioral Health, Housing, and the Penal Code”

  1. Bill Marshall

    Stating that we need to deal with issues of the intersection between behavioral health and the penal code and the criminal legal system on a daily basis, Senator Sydney Kamlager said last week, 

    True story… like the old Venn diagrams… it is an area of overlap… inter-related, often… and what works a bit more ‘well’ in one aspect, not so much in the others… I assume by ‘behavioral’ health, organic MH, emotional MH and substance issues are all included, in Ms Kamlager’s view… that’s a Venn diagram within a Venn diagram.

    No answers, but looks like progress on a good question, which I hope will become the focus… will not be easily to ‘solve’ by any means (no “magic wand”)… but where the efforts should be put.

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