Mental Health Equity, Access and Justice in 2021

We’re very happy to have entered a new year and a new political climate with so much more hope on the horizon. We’re also resolved to keep pushing for change, and to make mental health justice and access to care realities for all Californians.

This year, we’re taking on two big issues that are especially important:

•  In partnership with The Kennedy Forum, we are leading the way toward creating a mental health crisis response system that brings urgent help to people who need it, where and when they need it.  AB 988 (Bauer-Kahan) will set up a three-digit emergency phone number – 988 – to summon crisis assistance and ensure that trained mental health responders are the people who come to help.

• We can no longer accept homelessness as an acceptable reality in our state. AB 816 (Chiu) would establish a Housing and Homelessness Inspector General that could take legal action against a state or local government for failing to submit or follow a plan to reduce homelessness by 90 percent by the end of the decade.

We are also following up on last year’s work. The Steinberg Institute realized one of our biggest legislative victories through the passage of SB 855, a bill carried by Senator Scott Wiener that requires health insurers to cover medically necessary care for people living with a mental illness, thereby creating true mental health parity in California. That means they must cover treatments for ailments of the mind just as they do for ailments of the body. We sat down with Sen. Wiener and spoke with him in a fascinating interview about his early experiences with anti-Semitism and homophobia, his commitment to ensuring that SB 855 is enforced, and his belief that there is “enormous momentum for aggressive mental health legislation among his colleagues in the legislature.”

For Immediate Release 
February 18, 2021

Landmark Legislation Will Transform California’s Response to Mental Health Crises

 Contacts: Tara Gamboa-Eastman, Steinberg Institute: , 916-580-2089
Jordan Curley, Office of Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan: , 916-319-2016

Legislation introduced today will transform the way California responds to mental health emergencies to ensure those in crisis receive the urgent care they need. The system uses an easy-to-remember three-digit phone number – 988 – as an alternative to 911 so individuals and their families know and can trust that help is only one call away.

Assembly Bill 988 will implement the new nationwide 988 Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Hotline created last year by the Federal Communications Commission and Congress. The 988 hotline, which all states must implement by July 2022, replaces an underutilized, hard-to-remember 10-digit number.

The bill was introduced by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) in partnership with The Steinberg Institute, The Kennedy Forum, Contra Costa County, NAMI of Contra Costa County, and the Miles Hall Foundation, the organizations sponsoring the legislation.

Call centers will connect people calling or texting 988 with trained counselors and dispatch mobile crisis support teams – staffed by mental health professionals and trained peers instead of police officers – to help a person in crisis. The bill mandates that calls to 911 reporting a mental health crisis be transferred to 988 and that operators for both lines have the capacity to coordinate if medical, fire or law enforcement responders are needed.

With calls to existing suicide prevention call centers skyrocketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – including by 8,000 percent at one Los Angeles-based call center – AB 988 will ensure the state is prepared to answer the calls of all Californians in need.

The Miles Hall Lifeline Act is named for Miles Hall, a 23-year-old African American man who was shot and killed by officers in 2019 while in the midst of a mental health crisis. His mother, Taun Hall, had spoken to police officers about her son numerous times over several years and had called the local police department the day before the shooting to warn that Miles was having an unstable period.

“The current system relies on law enforcement and confinement and puts people suffering from mental illness through an expensive and traumatizing revolving-door as they shuttle between jails, emergency rooms, and the street,” said Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan. “A comprehensive crisis response system can help prevent these tragedies, save money, and increase access to the right kind of care. There are too many stories like that of Miles. We must make significant changes in how we respond to those suffering from a mental health crisis.”

AB 988 takes a monumental step forward in addressing these systemic inequities in our mental health system by decriminalizing our response to mental health, dismantling a major source of systemic injustice and addressing a major driver of homelessness. It is jointly authored by Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), and Philip Ting (D-San Francisco); and co-authored by more than a dozen other legislators.

“Police officers are not mental health experts. My city and other cities in California are appropriately working to deploy social workers and trained crisis intervention experts for the thousands of calls that don’t require a police officer. This change is good for the community and good for the police officers themselves,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, founder of the Steinberg Institute. “It’s time to provide a consistent public health response to a public health crisis.”

“Our nation’s response to mental health emergencies must no longer be led by police, but rather by mental health professionals who can stabilize individuals and connect them to appropriate treatment,” said former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy Forum. “AB 988 will facilitate development of a robust mental health crisis response system in California—one that puts people on the road to recovery, instead of behind bars.”

Taun Hall, Miles’ mother, supports the bill. “Nothing’s going to bring Miles back,” she said. “He had a life and he had a future and that was all taken away in a minute. But it gives us comfort to know that a bill like this might help save other children and spare other families this anguish.”


For Immediate Release 
February 17, 2021

Assemblymember Chiu Introduces Bill to Create a Legal Obligation to Reduce Homelessness in California

Legislation would create a statewide homelessness strategy and ensure governments take steps to address homelessness 

Sacramento, CA—Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) announced a bill today that would ensure all state and local governments are working to meaningfully address homelessness. AB 816 would undertake a statewide planning process to reduce homelessness and hold governments accountable to those plans through a newly created Housing and Homelessness Inspector General position.

“State and local governments need to be rowing in the same direction toward the same goal if we are ever to see a significant reduction in homelessness,” said Assemblymember Chiu. “Homelessness is the moral crisis of our time, and this bill ensures governments at all levels are responsible for addressing it.”

Homelessness remains a vexing problem in California with over 150,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. The state has the largest unsheltered population in the nation. As California has seen COVID outbreaks in shelters and congregate settings, the pandemic has only made the need to reduce homelessness more urgent.

In recent years, state government has taken important steps and allocated significant one-time investments to address homelessness, but there is still no coordinated plan among state and local governments to tackle this issue. While many local governments have tried valiantly to house those experiencing homelessness in their jurisdictions, others have taken no action and perpetuate myths about homelessness that allow them to shirk responsibility all together. There is currently no legal requirement for local governments to take steps to reduce homelessness in California.

AB 816 would require state and local governments to develop actionable plans to reduce homelessness by 90 percent by December 31, 2029. The Department of Housing and Community Development would review and approve the plans created.

To ensure accountability, AB 816 would establish a Housing and Homelessness Inspector General that could take legal action against a state or local government for failing to submit or follow a plan to reduce homelessness. However, AB 816 ensures local governments are only held accountable for what they are fiscally able to bear by considering their level of existing resources.

The bill would also require a thorough analysis of all existing homelessness programs in California and the overall need for housing interventions and homelessness services.

Assemblymembers Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), and Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) are coauthors of AB 816.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing, Housing California, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and the Steinberg Institute are cosponsoring AB 816. The bill comes out of work done by Governor Gavin Newsom’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Los Angeles City Council Member Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“I applaud Assemblymember Chiu’s bold leadership to create a legally-enforceable mandate,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “It should no longer be optional for governments to ensure every Californian has a safe and affordable place to live. Housing is a basic human right, as important as education, health care and other services governments provide.”

“As a member of the Governor’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, CSH is thrilled to see a big focus of the Council’s recommendations captured in this bill,” said Sharon Rapport, Director of California State Policy for the Corporation for Supportive Housing. “The bill ensures our jurisdictions can allocate resources with a clear understanding of California’s gaps, along with a vision and path for filling those gaps. In so doing, our state and local programs will become more effective, more accountable, and more responsive to data. We are honored to be working with Asm. Chiu on this important bill.”

“With over 150,000 Californians experiencing homelessness on any given night, we need to respond with an effective, data-driven strategy for reducing homelessness,” said Chirs Martin, Policy Director for Housing California. “AB 816 will do that, by assessing gaps in state funding, requiring state and local agencies to set clear metrics and goals, and holding them accountable to meeting those goals.”

“AB 816 mirrors California’s successful approach to major challenges like greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy,” said Julie Snyder, Government Affairs Director for the Steinberg Institute. “Public and private sector partners will develop an ambitious but achievable plan, measure progress regularly, and course-correct to stay on track. If California can tackle climate change with all of its complexities, surely we can reduce homelessness and ensure people with a severe mental illness have a safe, stable place to live.”

“Reducing homelessness requires a shared responsibility and should be on top of everyone’s agenda,” said Assemblymember Santiago. “There’s no reason why local municipalities shouldn’t be legally required to quickly house as many people as possible, especially as we battle a ravaging pandemic. By establishing an accountability and enforcement mandate, we will be that much closer to eliminating homelessness in California.”

“Our homelessness crisis cannot be tackled by a single level of government, nor can it be solved without all levels playing their part in the fight,” said Assemblymember Wicks. “Accountability is necessary to make sure that our best laid plans and intentions actually get executed upon – AB 816 provides the framework to make that happen.”

AB 816 is expected to be heard in an Assembly policy committee this spring.


Assemblymember David Chiu (D–San Francisco) is the Chair of the Housing & Community Development Committee of the California State Assembly. He represents the 17th Assembly District, which encompasses eastern San Francisco. Learn more at:


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