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SF officials support expansion of conservatorships to address homelessness, drug addiction

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San Francisco city officials are backing legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener that will expand conservatorships for homeless people. (Examiner file photo)

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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