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.