Zak Williams, Ronen and Haney
Supervisor Matt Haney (left), Supervisor Hillary Ronen, Zak Williams, Manny Yekutiel. Photo by Julian Mark

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what would bring two San Francisco supervisors and the son of the late Robin Williams onto the same stage on a chilly Wednesday night. But Supervisor Hillary Ronen, Supervisor Matt Haney, and Zak Williams stopped by Manny’s at 16th and Valencia to talk about something that touches many of our lives, and theirs more than most: mental health. 

“It was profound for many people to see someone who devoted his life to entertaining and delivering happiness and laughter and joy take his life,” said Williams of his father, who died by suicide in August 2014 in his Marin County home. “That shed light on an issue that a lot of people had been experiencing, or are currently experiencing, or will experience down the line.” 

Williams said that suicide, depression, and addiction have become an “epidemic, plain and simple.” 

And this is not just the case for the most “forward-facing” in our society, those who make newspaper headlines like his father, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain — celebrities of seemingly endless means. 

“The city has identified 4,000 people who are homeless and who either have a serious mental illness or substance abuse addition — 4,000 people,” said Haney, who represents the mid-Market area and the Tenderloin. 

That’s why he and Ronen are pushing for their overhaul of San Francisco’s mental health system — a plan called “Mental Health SF.” In an effort to prevent the system from spitting people back onto the street, the plan would infuse $100 million into the existing $400 million the S.F. Department of Public Health already spends on mental health services.

“This is not something that was talked about openly all the time, and acknowledged that these diseases of the mind should be treated equally to diseases of the body,” said Ronen, who explained that she began working on Mental Health SF years ago when looking for long-term solutions to homelessness — but discovered major deficiencies in the mental health system. 

On Tuesday, Mayor London Breed unveiled a dueling ballot measure to Ronen and Haney’s Mental Health SF, called “UrgentCareSF.”  The mayor’s plan would more narrowly focus on mental health among the city’s homeless population. It includes creating 800 new treatment beds, hiring more caseworkers and health care professionals, and creating “sobering centers.” 

But Haney charged that Breed and the Health Department could do all of this immediately and without a ballot measure — as they run the system. “So it’s a poison pill to try to kill Mental Health SF,” he said. 

Manny Yekutiel, the owner of Manny’s, explained that he coordinated his three guests to explore different sides of San Francisco’s mental health conundrum. 

“The reason I thought it was important is because mental health care is a very personal issue, and there is an emotional, personal, and familial connection to this issue,” Yekutiel said. “But … there’s also policy we can use to address it.” 

Ronen and Haney’s plan would create “critical case managers” who would shepherd people through the maze of services; establish a “crisis response outreach team” that would work with people less likely to accept services; expand community mental health services “at all levels”; and create an “Office of Private Insurance Accountability” that would pressure insurers into providing mental health services that people may have a difficult time receiving. 

“As someone who has been severely affected by your dad’s crisis,” Rachel Rodriguez, a social worker in San Francisco, asked Williams, “what [service] was the most helpful to you and how can Hillary and Matt incorporate that into Mental Health SF?” 

Williams said Mental Health SF “addresses chronic and crisis-oriented programming in a meaningful way.” But he said he would like to see prevention in networks of families and communities “fleshed out further.” He said he would like to see prevention programs brought closer into communities that he thinks suffer from extreme “isolation.” 

He also said gathering data and learning from it to examine “what is having a positive impact culturally, economically, and on a personal level for the constituents that make up this wonderful city.” 

“My story is not unique,” Williams added. “Everyone’s story is important.” 

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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9 Comments

  1. This is where “moderate” Democrats like Breed, invites comparisons to the evil Republicans. The great Democrat social insurance programs, Social Security and Medicare, are still around because they are universal programs. That means that the typical wedge politics can get no toehold since everyone is in.

    Programs like what Breed supports only focus on “the most vulnerable,” and become themselves more vulnerable as they only serve a fraction of the population. Much health insurance “behavioral health” coverage is limited both in scope and duration of coverage. So there is tremendous unmet need there. The difference is that the need is by those who work and pay taxes who can’t be pigeonholed into “the most vulnerable” who are otherwise deemed “worthy” of public social services by the neoliberal Democrats. To them, everything in this dysfunctional system is just fine except for those worse off than “you.”

    When people compare “moderate” Democrats to Republicans, this kind of “means testing” is what they mean, be it for tuition/fee free college, social insurance or in this case public health. The fear that some fraction of those who are not “the most vulnerable” might become eligible for public health services scares the neoliberals, as those dollars should go into the market as corporate profit-generating revenue.

    1. This is where only people like you invite the comparison of London Breed to evil republicans. A large population of this city doesn’t want to spend any money to address homelessness, how do you expect someone to institute programs that provide mental health are for the entire city? Look no further at the types of people who are opposing the Navigation Center for the archetype who would fight the programs you are advocating for. Incrementalism is better than nothingism.

      1. There is unanimity among elected officials that we should spend money on homelessness.

        A strong majority voted for Prop C last year.

        Objections to the South Beach Navigation Center were squashed by the executive, legislative and judicial branches decisively.

        Your premises are all faulty.

        I’d wager that with universal mental health care available to San Franciscans, that the quality of discourse in comment sections would improve markedly. And that would probably be abhorrent to you.

        1. My points stand.
          40% of SF = large population of SF.
          Opposition to the Nav center was national news.

          I do agree with you there. You’d get the help you need if it were available to all.

          1. Taint,

            You literally can’t carry Marco’s athletic supporter.

            Notice he uses facts and you use ad hominem insults.

            You done picked yourself a fight with the best mind in SF.

            Old Dawg will watch w/interest.

            Boudin for DA!

            Preston in D-5!

            Bobby Coleman for SFUSD Board!

            Raju for Public Defender!

            Miyamoto for Sheriff!!

            Go Niners!

            h.

          2. 60% is a larger population of SF.

            Fox News will hype anything that makes Democrats look bad, as if Democrats need any help. Beating on California and San Francisco is par for the course over there.

            White savior progressives tripped all over one another trying to perform compassion for the most vulnerable.

  2. Imagine being the kind of person who thought the world operated in black and white.

    Good luck with that. Keep living in the fantasy world of your comment posts.

    Keep grinnin’!

    1. Taint,

      Would you like some cheese and crackers with your whine?

      Boudin for DA!

      Preston in D-5!

      Bobby Coleman for SFUSD Board!

      Raju for Public Defender!

      Miyamoto for Sheriff!!

      Go Niners!

      h.

  3. In a town where nothing seems to work right no matter how much money is thrown about, it’s a dubious proposition that a plan to establish yet another layer of city employees and bureaucracy to “shepherd people through the maze of services” would accomplish anything meaningful. Perhaps provide meaningful pathways for city employees with seniority to move up into the managerial level of the food and benefit chain.

    A rational person would first question why mental health services are a maze in the first place.
    By definition one is not quite right in the mem-brain – why design a maze for them?

    Experience thru a friend – homeless/broke/depressed/suffering from a hernia/alcohol dependency:

    St. Mary’s – 3 day stay in a private room with full time personal attendant so you don’t harm yourself – super deluxe treatment.

    But then the next stop is Saint Francis Psych Ward Cuckoo’s Nest where everybody is medicated to the max to insure they don’t harm themselves, other patients or staff.
    Extricate yourself ASAP and when you leave they’ll give you MUNI fare.

    After obligatory maze running – a stay for a number of weeks in sort of a halfway house in the Haight where you don’t go out alone. Amazing results. 5 star Yelp review. The system works.
    But this was not a meth individual and could be reasoned with and abide by rules and restrictions.

    Any other stories of success/failures of the maze as it exists now?
    Any idea what to do with meth blown brains?

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