Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks at a rally in support of the proposed Mental Health SF program before a hearing at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee at City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tensions flare over mental health measure as talks continue on possible compromise

Supporters of mental health measure arrested before hearing

A hearing on a mental health care measure making its way to the 2020 ballot in San Francisco got off to a dramatic start Wednesday when deputies arrested supporters at a rally just before it began.

The arrests came as city leaders announced that they are making progress toward a compromise on uniting two competing measures to reform The City’s behavioral health system after weeks of political sparring.

Sara Shortt, Community Housing Partnerships’ director of policy and community organizing, was arrested and cited for “trespassing” and “resisting arrest,” and Jennifer Worley, president of the City College of San Francisco’s faculty union, was arrested and cited for “interfering with an arrested person” and “lynching” — both have been released from custody.

They were part of a peaceful rally in support of “Mental Health SF” that drew more than 100 participants to the steps of City Hall and later moved into the building, where participants held signs and chanted “healthcare not handcuffs.” The rally and a press conference preceded a mandatory public hearing on the ballot measure, which is being spearheaded by supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney.

Nancy Crowley, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, told the San Francisco Examiner that Shortt and Worley were arrested because “they did not follow the rules and we asked them multiple times.”

Crowley said the protesters were asked “first by the City Hall building manager and then they resisted arrest. We asked them to please follow the rules.” She added that the rules were “that they should not be carrying large signs in the building and raising their voices,” calling the behavior “disruptive.”

Following her release, Shortt took to Twitter to relay her side of the story.

“Many of us were chanting. I was approached and told I would be escorted out of the building,” she said, adding that she was never told “we ask you to stop chanting” by the deputies.

“I said I was not doing anything illegal. [The deputies then] said I was “inciting.”A collective chant started. All of us were doing the same thing,“ said Shortt in a tweet.

The incident appeared to shake up the supervisors who called for the rally prior to the hearing on their ballot measure. Moments earlier they had said they were inching toward regaining support for their effort from Mayor London Breed following a breakdown in negotiations last month.

“City Hall is the people’s house and we want you all here. This place belongs to you and it’s important that you feel safe and that this place is accessible to you,” said Haney. “[What] happened in the hallway in terms of how folks were treated [ is ]not acceptable.”

During public comment on the measure, a speaker said that advocates being arrested “for chanting, ‘We need mental health care’” is emblematic of “what is happening on San Francisco’s streets.”

Advocates for the homeless as well as frontline Department of Public Health workers have voiced concerns about The City’s response to individuals experiencing psychiatric crises being led by police officers, rather than mental health professionals, among other things.

Mental Health SF promises to provide free mental health care to uninsured and underinsured San Franciscans and would establish an office to help advocate for services for insured patients, among other things.

“Right now we know people are being stuck at …a higher level of care where they don’t need to be. We know people who have spent nine months in jail waiting on a bed in the system. No longer,” said Ronen. “That is unacceptable. It [is no longer] going to happen in this city with a budget of $12 billion a year. We can and must do better.”

Disagreement over how to reform San Francisco’s behavioral health care system has resulted in dueling proposals from the supervisors and Breed. After several months of negotiations over what the system’s overhaul should look like, Breed pulled out of talks in late September.

Breed said at the time that she would prefer to go through The City’s legislative process, rather than placing systemic reforms before voters. She also criticized the supervisors’ measure for initially aiming to provide free mental health care to all in need, including privately insured patients.

The supervisors said they offered revisions to their measure to appease Breed, including narrowing the eligibility pool to homeless individuals with mental illness or substance use disorders, people at imminent risk of becoming homeless, uninsured individuals, as well as people with severe mental illness insured through Medical and Healthy SF.

Regardless, Breed earlier this month filed paperwork that would place her proposal, called Urgent Care SF, on the ballot in March 2020. Breed’s measure focuses on some 4,000 homeless San Franciscans who have mental illness and substance use disorders, starting with 230 people identified to be most at-risk, by expanding and streamlining housing and healthcare services, among other things.

The dueling measures must pass by a simple majority, but Breed’s measure includes a provision that would kill Mental Health SF should her measure receive more votes.

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Breed, confirmed on Wednesday that Urgent Care SF “has a provision to clarify what happens if both measures pass.

“Normally if both measures passed, the measures would be blended. But because this issue is so complex, blending provisions without any ability to ensure a reasonable outcome doesn’t’ make sense,” he said. “The provision clarifies that if both measures pass and Urgent Care SF has more votes in favor, the measure become law as drafted.”

People hold signs at a rally in support of the proposed Mental Health SF program before a hearing at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee at City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

On Wednesday, Ronen said that the two parties had re-entered talks on October 11 and that those talks are “going well.” Ronen and Haney have until November 26 to remove their measure from the ballot and pursue changes through the legislative process, which both said they are willing to do so long as they receive assurances from Breed that it would not be further watered down.

“We need to feel safe that if we take it off the ballot that it will really be implemented, and faster [than it would be at the ballot]. We all collectively want that,” said Ronen. “There was a break in trust on both sides. We are slowly rebuilding that trust and putting assurances in place…that it’s actually implemented.”

She added an agreement will not be reached “without the big universal vision that we have.”

Cretan, of Breed’s office, echoed that “negotiations are going well and have been productive,” adding that “we are optimistic that we will be able to craft a compromise that addressed the mental health crisis on our streets without having to go to the ballot.”

While some who spoke at public comment at Tuesday’s hearing voiced concerns that offering free mental health care to most San Franciscans would leave those with the most severe needs behind, a majority spoke in support of Mental Health SF.

Cheryl Shanks, a formerly homeless woman, said that she became addicted to drugs while on the streets and was placed under a 5150 hold a total of eight times.

“When I was in the psych ward I pleaded with doctors to keep me [there]. Every time, I was let out on the street within 24 hours,” said Shanks. “People have a right to live again [and] to recover. They are human beings. People shouldn’t have to get mental health care by luck. There should be treatment-on-demand for every person out here.”

San Francisco Examiner Staff Writer Michael Barba contributed to this report.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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