By Chris Reed.
Reflecting frustration over the fact that years of adding resources to fighting homelessness had brought little progress, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a bill making it significantly easier for authorities in three counties with 40 percent of California’s population to force the most severely troubled individuals into conservatorships. Those are arrangements in which after judges give their consent, individuals can be compelled to remain hospitalized and receive treatment for addiction, mental illness or both.
Senate Bill 40 was introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. It allows the counties of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego to set up pilot programs under which police, social services and public health advocates can seek to have judges approve conservatorships for individuals after their eighth “5150” or emergency crisis hold within a year. The law sunsets in 2024.
But the driving force behind the concept has been San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who for years has argued that her city needs a more effective way to deal with the relative handful of homeless people responsible for extreme incidents that harm quality of life for city residents and tourists alike.
“We can’t compel anyone to do something if they don’t want to do it,” the mayor told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “And in most cases, for someone who is mentally ill, they are not accepting what we are offering — which means the conservatorship legislation is going to be very helpful for a small group of those people.”
The ACLU of Northern California — one of the best-funded, most high-profile local ACLU chapters in the nation — strongly opposed the measure, faulting its due-process provisions as inadequate.
Targeted individuals found in need of involuntary detention under the new law would first be given a 28-day housing conservatorship and then six-month arrangements. It provides individuals opportunities to challenge authorities’ decisions in the courts. But the hardline elements of the law were too much for civil liberties groups.
“Fundamentally, care should not begin with handcuffs,” a coalition of groups including the ACLU told Wiener in April.
Counties may not have adequate facilities to use with law
Another sharp criticism was that none of the three counties had adequate facilities allowing authorities to get many troubled individuals off the streets.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness, told Pew’s Stateline news service that “of course there aren’t [adequate resources]. … Look around the city. If there were beds, you wouldn’t see what you see.” Wiener’s law “doesn’t really do anything but sounds good to the public.”
Statistics cited in a recent Chronicle article back up this concern. It noted that two people who were already in an existing conservatorship program in San Francisco were being held inside of a locked hospital ward because of an estimated five-month wait time to get into a residential facility.
Former state lawmaker Kevin Murray, a supporter of more aggressive use of conservatorships with the troubled homeless, last month blasted the city and county of Los Angeles for inadequate facilities. A recent Los Angeles city audit offered similar concerns.
In June, San Diego County supervisors responded to years of criticism over its mental health and homelessness programs by beefing up spending in the 2019-20 budget. While the city of San Diego has won praise for its efforts to provide shelter to the homeless, it’s also been faultedfor its sparse options on care for the mentally ill homeless.