Sobriety Clause Dooms Homeless Pilot

Sobriety may be a vital component of helping some families break the cycle of homelessness, dysfunction and dependence, but it’s the hurdle that a proposed pilot program could not clear.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Human Services voted to reject a five-year pilot program that required random, mandatory drug testing as a condition of program eligibility. (In a separate vote, the committee elected to keep a version of the bill on hold, one with an amendment eliminating the sobriety requirement.)

SB 659, by state Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), is designed to help those facilities that require drug testing as a condition of participation to access state funds in the form of a five-year pilot program to help homeless families achieve independence.

Those facilities are not eligible for federal Housing and Urban Development funding because of the sobriety requirement. Federal policy says drug testing cannot be used as a requirement for welfare services.

That was the holdup for most of the committee members. 

Many of these programs clearly help homeless families recover, state Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said. “But can that only be accomplished with random mandatory drug testing?” she asked. “That, to me, is a big barrier to voting for this bill.”

The quote of the day came from Paul Webster, director of strategic advancement at Solutions for Change, a community-based rehabilitation facility in Oceanside, who said drug testing is the lesser of two evils where drug addiction is concerned.

“I’ve heard that requiring mandatory drug testing could be considered a gun-to-the-head approach,” Webster said. “Well, our response is, in life we often choose which guns are at our heads.”

Gary Incaudo is a physician who helped found the Esplanade House in Chico, which aims to help children by healing homeless families with a goal-oriented approach that includes sobriety restrictions.

Incaudo said his facility has a 70% success rate in helping families become independent.

“We have about 100 children [at the center],” he said. “These children are victims of their parents’ bad choices. It’s important to intervene as quickly as possible, so they don’t become the homeless of the future.”

The sticking point for the bill, though, is that it is designed for facilities which are having trouble accessing state and federal funding because of their sobriety restriction — but lawmakers also can’t circumvent that restriction.

According to Senate committee analysis:  “Federal courts have ruled in several cases that conditioning benefits and services for the poor on drug testing is unconstitutional, and violates protections against unreasonable search.”

The bill’s passage through committee became contingent on acceptance of an amendment to remove the sobriety restriction, but including that restriction was at the heart of the bill’s creation.

“I understand you’re unable to accept the amendment at this time,” said committee chair Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), “which means the bill is not going to move forward today.”

The bill failed on a 1-3 vote. The committee did vote to hold the bill for further review on a 4-0 vote, but yesterday was the last day to pass two-year bills out of committee, so it won’t be heard again unless it’s reintroduced as a new bill.

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