Dozens of San Franciscans gathered in St.John’s Church last Thursday evening to discuss why a new conservatorship is a violation of civil rights. The speakers included lawyers, advocates and formerly homeless people. Photo by Tessa Paoli

Dozens of San Franciscans poured into a chilly church in the Mission Thursday evening to learn why advocates want to stop an expansion of conservatorships that would drive a small number of people with both mental health and substance abuse issues into treatment. The message from the group was clear: it’s a grave violation of civil rights.

“Conservatorship is the most extreme deprivation of civil liberties, aside from the death penalty,” Susan Mizner, director of the disability rights program for the American Civil Liberties Union, said as people trickled into St. John the Evangelist, Episcopal Church.

The speakers, who made up part of the Voluntary Services First Coalition, an organization formed to fight against the conservatorship measure, includes advocates, lawyers and formerly homeless people. They explained how the new conservatorship law, or SB1045, would strip vulnerable people of their rights and autonomy.

SB1045 is a California law the California legislature passed last April to allow Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco counties to opt into a five-year pilot program expanding the existing conservatorship rules to include people with both mental illness and substance abuse disorders. The conservatorship would last one year with the option for renewal, and would provide eligible individuals with permanent housing. Each person under review will have the right to a public defender and due process, including the power to petition to terminate the conservatorship or contest the powers of the conservator.

San Francisco is the only county so far to show interest in the legislation, according to the Voluntary Services First Coalition. The Board of Supervisors has not yet scheduled a vote, but supporters of the conservatorship expansion, including Mayor London Breed and District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, are hoping to vote on the new guidelines by mid-March, according to Erin Mundy, a legislative aid for Mandelman.

The new conservatorship rules are based on very specific prerequisites, including eight or more 5150s, or involuntary psychiatric holds, in the last 12 months; and a clinical diagnosis of both serious mental health and substance abuse issues. Additionally, the individual under review must have already gone through and failed the state’s court-mandated Assisted Outpatient Treatment, required through Laura’s Law. San Diego and Los Angeles passed on the new conservatorship because the number of eligible people was so small, according to Mundy.

The number of people in the city who meet all of the requirements for the conservatorship is as low as 100 or 50 — or even 10, depending on who you ask.

But many advocates of disabled and homeless people are not comforted by the allegedly minuscule numbers of people who would be eligible. They believe coercing people into treatment is a civil rights abuse. Full stop.

Most of the audience members kept their coats on in the drafty church, but listened attentively to the speakers. The room was especially quiet when formerly homeless people took the microphone.

“My biggest fear is, if I lose my housing, I lose my rights,” said C.W. Johnson, an advocate and formerly homeless man who has been 5150ed over 20 times in different cities.

Johnson then passed the mic to Jordan Davis, a 34-year-old transgender activist who spent her first six months in San Francisco homeless in 2014 and has both PTSD and autism.

“Conservatorship is incarceration by any other name!” Davis exclaimed, and some members of the crowd applauded. She asked the crowd to join her in chanting “Community, not coercion!” The chant echoed through the dimly lit church.

David Elliott Lewis, an advocate and formerly homeless man, stressed that many people experience trauma in hospitals, and he doesn’t believe anyone should be coerced into treatment. “If anyone tried to serve me with a conservatorship, I would run far away,” he said.

Advocates were also concerned about the city’s ability to provide services and housing when people are already on week-long wait-lists, according to the coalition. Conservatorships have dropped statewide since the 1990s because of the lack of affordable housing or shelters, according to Mizner.

“Where are people going to go?” One advocate screamed out.

Mandeleman told Mission Local that the new conservatorship legislation is a good way for judges to decide how to help a small number of people who can’t care for themselves — and he is confident the city has the resources to do it.

“I think for a handful of folks this is probably the only tool we have to get them off the streets and into care,” Mandeleman said in an interview before the event.

Some advocates in the crowd supported SB1045, including a case manager who thought the comparison between conservatorship and the death penalty was out of line.

The night ended with a clear call to action: Call your representative.

“You leave here tonight with enough information to stand up for something,” said Joe Wilson, an advocate and member of the coalition, as attendees folded their chairs and headed out.

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  1. This issue shows why the ACLU and extremists that support despair are dangerous misguided lunatics. Drug addiction and mental illness are not free will. People who cannot help themselves, and are a danger to themselves and others, should be helped against their will.

  2. Cindy, I’m so sorry about your son. I’m hoping that people in this town can see that leaving someone to die on the sidewalk when they can’t take care of themselves is not compassionate. It’s ridiculous to think that we’ve come to a place where we’re not allowed to treat people who are clearly ill and in desperate need of help because of unfounded concerns about civil liberties. I’m a proud ACLU supporter and have been for many years but I think they’re dead wrong on this issue. People are literally dying on the streets because of this misplaced compassion.

  3. I have a son who is mentally ill and is now addicted to heroin. I haven’t seen him in well over a year. He has been in “court ordered treatment” but those treatment centers are not locked door facilities. My son, who sorely lacks insight into the depth of his erratic behavior and coping mechanisms, has walked out of every opportunity offered to him because he does not know better. He is ill! I wish that he could be involuntarily committed to a facility where he does not have the option to walk out.

    I wonder if the people who are adamantly opposed to conservatorship, calling it a massive civil rights violation, have an adult child with bipolar or schizoaffective disorder, coupled with a drug addiction. I believe they would sing a different tune. To violate someone’s civil rights is to allow a person who is mentally ill, in and out of jail, and living in a cardboard box, to voluntarily remain that way, in his worst possible state. As a mother, I would do anything to have my son picked up, cleaned up, fed, and committed to a place where he’d have to incorporate structure into his life and NOT ALLOWED to leave. Walking out the door would not be an option. I guess it’s easier to leave them out to die, & refer to that as “providing them with civil rights” rather than treating them and educating them. Nope, that would take too much work. The only rights my son is aware of are the Miranda rights he’s been read every time he’s manic and becomes violent. I shudder when the phone rings and it’s a 415 area code, wondering if this is “the call.”

    So hang on to your ridiculous narratives dressed up in legal jargon to appear as if it’s compassionate. These people aren’t enjoying their civil rights, they are humiliated with nothing to show for their lives. No one wakes up one day with this as their dream goal. NO ONE!

    1. Do you really know the conservatorship nightmares inflicted upon the elderly and persons with disabilities? Once these folks suffer a civil death, their assets are ripe for exploitation by those who are supposedly appointed by the court to protect them. The homeless will be used to collect untold medicaid dollars and benefits that the homeless person will never know about. And everyone BUT the homeless person will benefit. Once the conservatorship cottage industry is let in the door everybody loses.

      1. Really pathetic that you cannot muster a drop of empathy for Cindy, and, instead, you deflect. The truth she speaks does not fit your narrative

  4. The right to die on the street is not a right I support preserving. Anything that will facilitate access to treatment is a good thing since so many in desperate need cannot get it. I dont believe this bill will lead to massive civil rights violations. It is too difficult now to get someone who needs treatment conserved.

  5. Someone who has been 5150’d 8 times in one year is in desperate need of dramatic intervention and quite frankly cannot take care of themselves. Leaving such a person on the street is a death sentence.