Bill Aims to Help Homeless Suffering From Severe Mental Illness, Drug Addiction

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A 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-San Francisco) 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 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.


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

"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."

State Sen. Scott Wiener outlines a bill to give counties more say over homeless people with serious mental health issues.
State Sen. Scott Wiener outlines a bill to give counties more say over homeless people with serious mental health issues. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

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.

"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."

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.

"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, the SFPD, BART police and Aging and Adult Services. Breed and other speakers noted that the idea was first conceived by the late Mayor Ed Lee.

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

Farrell, who was picked by the Board of Supervisors to replace Breed as acting mayor, stood alongside her 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.