Following some compromise in the legislation, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday on a potentially game-changing pilot program that could significantly alter the way authorities handle homeless people in crisis.
The debate has been ongoing for months, with progressive supervisors including Hillary Ronan and Shamann Walton voicing opposition to the idea that mentally ill and often drug-addicted individuals in crisis should be forcibly put into treatment. The longstanding wisdom in San Francisco, and even California at large, is that forced commitment to mental health facilities constitutes a violation of civil rights when a person isn't endangering anyone else.
But SF residents have for decades had to accept that we share the streets and sidewalks with often visibly agitated, erratic, and frighteningly delusional individuals who have not found adequate treatment for their illnesses.
The new pilot program, as the Associated Press reports, will likely only apply to a small number of individuals — specifically those who are experiencing severe mental crisis or complications from addiction, and who have refused multiple times to voluntarily accept help.
"Allowing people to continue to suffer on our streets is not acceptable or humane, and I am glad the Board of Supervisors supported our approach to finally make a change," said Mayor London Breed in a statement. Breed also committed more budget money for treatment beds — and critics say the city is far short of the capacity it would require to humanely commit everyone who needs to be committed.
Following on the guidance of a state law passed by Sen. Scott Wiener last fall and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the program would assign a public conservator to each individual who deemed incapable of caring for their mental health or safety.
The new pilot program follows on a proposed ballot measure that would provide free mental health services to anyone in the city who wants them.
Critics contend that forced treatment can be more damaging or traumatic than being left on the street, but proponents, including Wiener, have likened leaving severely mentally ill people to their own devices to letting them die.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who typically votes with the progressives but whose District 8 has seen one of the most visible upticks in homelessness in recent years, said in the hearing that business owners and residents see mentally ill individuals go "from ‘kind of not great’ to being in absolute and complete distress."
Supervisor Vallie Brown, who also co-sponsored the bill and is up for election in District 5 in November, tells the AP, "By all accounts, the number of people affected will be small, but no matter how small the number, we all need to be watching closely to make sure the impacts are positive."