San Francisco backs new law to intervene with severe homeless population

San Francisco backs new law to intervene with severe homeless population
Civil liberties at issue in latest push for conservatorship reform
nA homeless man sleeps in front of his tent along Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not uncommon for visitors to San Francisco to leave town shocked by all the homeless people roaming the streets, many with visibly severe mental health problems.

Now, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-S.F.) is teaming up with state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) on legislation to give counties more options for getting homeless people off the streets and into services.

SB 1045 is a shell of a bill at the moment, but Sen. Wiener is hoping to write it with homeless advocates to address concerns about civil liberties and other issues.

The bill intends to expand and strengthen California’s conservatorship laws that are currently limited to seniors vulnerable to abuse as well as people who are “gravely disabled” or have severe cognitive limitations. SB 1045 would give counties another option to address homeless individuals known as “frequent fliers” who are in and out of jail, emergency rooms and other government services.

Under the pilot program, the agencies would create a list of “high-risk” individuals suffering from mental illness, substance abuse or chronic homelessness. The agencies would then meet bi-weekly do discuss way to help those individuals on the list.

“Current conservator laws are inadequate,” Wiener said after a press conference held at a supportive housing site in San Francisco.

Breed will introduce new legislation at the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to transfer the responsibility of non-criminal mental health conservatorship cases from the district attorney to the city attorney. Breed said:

“After 72 hours or a 14-day hold the individuals are brought to court for an extension and they appear sober and lucid because they’ve been held with treatment, so the judge has no basis to continue holding them.”

Wiener said at a press conference on Monday that the current conservatorship laws are not allowing cities to help the homeless population suffering from mental illness:

Wiener was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors a few years ago when there was a ferocious debate over adopting Laura’s Law, which allows family members and others to get a judge to compel psychiatric treatment. The city eventually adopted it, but this new bill is likely to reignite parts of that debate.

Public conservatorship laws may soon expand throughout the state, including in San Francisco, under proposed legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener.

“Some will hear about this bill and assume we’re trying to sweep all homeless people into some kind of psychiatric commitment,” Wiener said. “That is absolutely untrue. For about 99 percent of the homeless it will have no impact whatsoever.”

“The public conservatorship laws are simply too rigid to allow counties to help those who are the greatest distressed on the streets.”

Estimates of how many homeless people are in San Francisco range between 6,000 and 10,000.

San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell, who is sponsoring the bill, acknowledged that it would hardly be a panacea for San Francisco’s recalcitrant homeless problem, but he thought it could help with those who use city services like a revolving door.

“This is a life or death situation, and it is beyond humane to just sit back and watch as these people die.”

“Those that continue to cycle through our public resource system, whether it be ambulances, or hospitals or public health department, police department, fire department,” Farrell said. “These are the ones that we need to address first.”

Working in concert with the state effort, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed will introduce legislation to transfer the job of overseeing conservatorships from the district attorney to the city attorney, thereby treating mental illness as a civil issue rather than a criminal one. In addition, the legislation would coordinate efforts of the city departments of Homelessness and Supportive Services, Public Health, San Francisco Police, BART police and Aging and Adult Services. Sup. Breed  and other speakers noted that the idea was first conceived by the late Mayor Ed Lee.

“We have to explore new ways to help these individuals. The status quo is unacceptable.”

The Monday morning press conference was held a few blocks from City Hall with the backdrop of a contentious campaign for San Francisco mayor.

“The laws today inhibit us to do the kinds of work we that believe that they need.”

Farrell, who was picked by the Board of Supervisors to replace Board President London Breed as acting mayor, stood alongside Breed at the press conference. Mayoral candidate Angela Alioto managed to insert herself into the photo op, even though she was not invited and did not speak.

According to a recent poll of San Francisco residents, the homeless and the cost of living in the city were among the most pressing concerns of voters.

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

The California Report provides daily coverage of news and culture throughout the state.

By next year, San Francisco could have broader conservatorship powers to force those who are homeless and struggling with mental illness and drug addiction to receive treatment.

San Francisco city officials announced their support Monday of legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener that would expand The City’s mental health conservatorship program used to require a person through a judge’s order to undergo treatment, such as take certain medications or receive specific services.

Speaking with Wiener and Public Health Director Barbara Garcia at a press conference at a San Francisco supportive housing project, Mayor Mark Farrell said The City needs to try new approaches.

“In San Francisco we do have a mental health crisis on our streets and Senator Wiener’s [Senate Bill 1045] will go a long way towards improving our situation here in San Francisco,” Farrell said. “We have to explore new ways to help these individuals.”

The City currently lacks the ability to ask the judge to consider such factors as a person’s treatment history, drug addiction and whether they are homeless when seeking a conservatorship but Wiener’s proposal could change that, Garcia told the San Francisco Examiner.

“What we are trying to do, is really trying to tell the story of whoever we are serving that it is a long term issue that we’ve been contending with,” Garcia said.

Garcia said that the terms of conservatorships depend on the individual, but can include a locked psychiatric facility.

Wiener acknowledged there are civil liberty concerns but said the existing checks and balances, which include judicial oversight, will remain in place while he expands the parameters by which a judge may grant a city’s conservatorship request.

Wiener said that it would apply to “perhaps one percent of our homeless population.”

Wiener said that there are cases where The City legally holds someone for 72-hours or 14-days when exhibiting signs of mental illness, but by the time they are before a judge they have sobered up and no longer appear unfit to care for themselves. They then go out to the streets and fall prey to the same behaviors that caused their mental illness, creating a cycle Wiener hopes to break.

“You have individuals who through a pattern have shown that they are not capable of caring for themselves even though at a given moment in time they might be lucid,” Wiener said.

Details of the proposal remain the subject of negotiation and civil liberty groups and homeless advocates are withholding judgement until they see the final language. Wiener is expected to introduce a more detailed bill within 30 to 60 days.

“We don’t have a position on the bill at the moment,” said Brady Hirsch, spokesperson for the ACLU of Northern California.

“What we can say is what we see on the streets is the results of $40 million in direct San Francisco behavioral health cuts between 2007 and 2012,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of Coalition on Homelessness. “A serious effort is needed to address the mental health crisis we face that goes hundreds of steps beyond a short hospital stay. We welcome a conversation that puts mental health consumers themselves at the forefront of the debate.”

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who represents those who The City seeks to put under a conservatorship, said Monday that “we cautiously support this legislation as one vehicle to alleviate the misery caused by homelessness coupled with chronic mental illness and addiction.”

“However, we will be watching closely to ensure this proposed change does not come at the expense of our clients’ civil liberties,” Adachi said. “It’s important to remember that mental illness isn’t fixed with a Band-Aid, so any legislation must include housing and long term maintenance of care and support.”

Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who supports Wiener’s bill, also announced Monday she plans to introduce legislation Tuesday to have the city attorney, not the district attorney, represent The City’s non-criminal mental health conservatorship cases. “These cases should not be treated as a crime but as a civil matter. The same way we treat child and family law in The City,” Breed said.

Wiener said the bill would need to be approved by the senate by May to have it on track to reach the governor’s desk by Sept. 1. If it passes, it will take effect in January 2019.

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