In a late Friday afternoon announcement, the Department of Public Health affirmed it has “paused changes” at the city’s Behavioral Health Center on the General Hospital campus, where it was poised to repurpose 41 permanent housing beds for the mentally ill into homeless shelter space.

“We have chosen to pause changes at the Behavioral Health Center while the Mayor and Board of Supervisors have a conversation about how to proceed in a way that accomplishes our shared goals of patient safety, stability and expanded access to services,” reads the statement from DPH director Dr. Grant Colfax, released around 3:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon.

From within the Department of Public Health, we’re simply told “everything is on pause.”

This move shelves a brewing controversy and fiasco at the Behavioral Health Center. Here’s a synopsis of all that’s transpired since the city last month moved to fold those permanent beds into a temporary homeless respite, and 45 beds were willfully left empty at the ground-floor Adult Residential Facility and second-floor Residential Care for the Elderly facility:

  • The Department of Public Health first said it had been unable to expediently make hires to staff the facilities properly. Staffers, however, told us of open positions languishing for more than a year. A quick Sept. 12 search on the DPH’s job portal showed only two open jobs here — and both are earmarked for lateral transfers, not new workers. What’s more, Janel Holland, who ran the Adult Residential Facility from 2009 to 2015, says she warned higher-ups about understaffing a decade ago. In 2013, 14 beds were added to the facility and, she says, she was told to make do without any additional staff;
  • Mental health workers here — and we have spoken to well more than a dozen — say they were told by management that new patients could not be admitted because the facilities were “on probation” from the state licensing board. But this is not true. And, in fact, three days after Mission Local’s Sept. 2 article about management’s “probation” claims, state licensing personnel dropped by Potrero Street unannounced and “explained” to top managers “that the facility is not on probation and not restricted to not admit residents;”
  • Finally, in an above-the-fold A1 story in the San Francisco ChronicleDPH special projects manager Kelly Hiramoto last week said it was the “unprofessional conduct” from workers that led to a freeze on admissions (citations, as you can see here, have been amassing over the years). DPH director Dr. Grant Colfax added that the facility was “not performing to our standards.”

Following that salvo in the Chronicle, mental health workers, medical students, union leaders, and even residents at the Behavioral Health Center shut down Tuesday’s Health Commission meeting, demanding the 60-day notices given to residents be rescinded.

Those demands appear to have been met.

“This is so good. We fought so damn hard,” says Jennifer Esteen, a psychiatric nurse and SEIU 1021 member leading the charge to preserve these permanent beds. “People who live at a place that’s at risk showed up at a Health Commission meeting and spoke for themselves, and the administration of the Department of Public Health has listened. Let’s hope the pause DPH is talking about is more than just a pause.”

Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, who last Tuesday introduced a resolution to halt the plan, said in a joint statement that they were notified of the Health Department’s move this afternoon. “It shouldn’t have been this hard to get the Mayor and DPH to change an obviously flawed policy decision,” they said. “Strangely it took Supervisors introducing legislation and direct action by front line nurses and health care workers for the Mayor to rescind eviction notices for severely mentally ill people, who would otherwise be on the street.”

In his statement, Colfax said he’s focused on a path forward. “Patient care and safety are core to our mission,” he wrote. “We look forward to working with city leaders on a resolution that brings the best outcome for everyone served by the Behavioral Health Center.”