South Van Ness Manor
South Van Ness Manor has eluded the city and was bought by a private buyer. Photo by Joe Eskenazi, Nov. 25, 2019

A 21-room board-and-care facility housed in a gargantuan Victorian home on South Van Ness Avenue is stated to close its doors Nov. 30, leaving more than a dozen chronically mentally ill residents homeless. 

The 129-year-old house, gaily decorated in white, lavender, and gold, was placed on the market in October for just shy of $5 million. Realtor Ellen Julian said the 6,745-square-foot home has not sold, and she’s fielded offers from “three interested buyers:” The city itself a developer with a notion of running it as a for-profit facility (with, it would seem, a different client base), and a developer interested in converting the site into a hotel. 

Either way, the 27 residents have been given notice that they have to clear out by month’s end. Some 13 have been placed by the city but 14 more are still here. One, who identified herself as Aifa’i Taylor, said her case manager is working to find her a placement. “I’m not homeless. I’m not homeless,” she said, ambling up the stairs and into the building. 

“Right at Thanksgiving — and it’ll be raining,” said Jennifer Esteen, a psychiatric nurse who works in the health department’s transitions division, securing placements for people like Taylor. 

“How much worse can the timing get?” 

Esteen said that efforts are underway to place the 14 remaining residents at the Hummingbird Place center at San Francisco General Hospital. 

This is not ideal. Hummingbird is not a board-and-care facility; it’s a temporary respite for the homeless. So, not only will the current South Van Ness Manor residents, some of whom have resided in that structure for years, be shunted into a shelter-like situation, they’ll be taking up places that were earmarked for those in need of shelter. 

Hummingbird only has 19 beds. By essentially commandeering it for South Van Ness Manor residents, a cascading effect takes place, affecting placements up and down the chain — from the hospital, from other board-and-cares, even from jail. 

This was also the case when, as revealed earlier this year, the city intentionally left some 45 beds empty at the Adult Residential Facility and Residential Care for the Elderly, both housed on the General Hospital campus in a structure called the Behavioral Health Center. Self-imposed bottlenecks, in fact, resulted in mental health patients sitting in jail, for months, because there was ostensibly no facility to place them in. 

This issue came to light following the health department’s effort to convert permanent housing for the mentally ill into temporary shelter space — namely, the very same Hummingbird Place center, which is also located within the Behavioral Health Center.  

Esteen notes that some 20 beds are still empty at Residential Facility for the Elderly, located just one floor up from Hummingbird. 

The loss of board-and-care facilities for the mentally ill has become endemic in San Francisco; the city had 999 under contract in 2013 — and, today, has access to fewer than 600. Other closures are on the horizon following Nov. 30.  

In San Francisco, the city’s parodic real-estate costs are often at the root of this; while the need for these facilities is acute, the land they occupy could well fetch top dollar. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman in October introduced legislation aimed at discouraging the repurposing of board-and-cares. 

He is uncertain if the future ordinance would apply to South Van Ness Manor, but hopes it would: “It is certainly my intention that they would have trouble doing anything here but a board-and-care,” he said.  

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission and has focused on mental health during her tenure, said she’s concerned about the residents’ possible displacement. “We need to postpone any displacement of these residents until the city secures other stable long-term placements for them,” Ronen said. “We also must immediately identify more board and care beds for the city overall.”

She also urged a fast implementation of Mental Health SF, a sweeping mental health system reform she helped author, because it “will actually help solve the problem.”

Esteen said residents housed on-site at South Van Ness Manor are not taking it well; the stress has induced some to “de-compensate” — that is, suffer anguish and breakdowns. Even if the city were able to delay the facility’s closing rather than prevent it altogether, she said, that would be helpful. 

“That could give us the chance to get staffing right at the Residential Center for the Elderly, stagger admissions — which is better for staff and clients — and give us a chance to maybe find a new board-and-care to contract with,” she said. “We can find more.” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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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  1. After 20 years in the neighborhood I am very attached to quite a few of these very sweet guys and very fond of their presence in the neighborhood. God willing they will find shelter. Perhaps the Land Trust can help?

  2. I dont understand, who owns the building? Is it not the city? And if it is the city why are they selling it?

    1. Ali — 

      It’s not the city. Most board-and-cares are privately owned. The city contracts with an ever-dwindling pool of them.


  3. This is unfettered Capitalism on steroids. The prices that housing fetches gives owners an incentive to sell and makes it difficult if not impossible for anyone but the well heeled to buy or rent housing in this City. If you have a disability, it seems particularly if it is a mental disability you are supposed to feck off and disappear. Schizophrenic? You should have gotten a tech job! Latinx? You should have been born white. If you weren’t, well, too bad. Your bad luck. Just go somewhere where we can’t see you. A society is judged in the history books by how the least among us is treated.
    Thank you Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney for trying to do something for the apparently disposable in our city.

    1. Unfettered capitalism on steroids? Capital is nearly begging to put up some 8 story rows of apartments throughout the city. At 1-2% yields too. We are too good to say yes.

  4. This is so sad. I used to live on the same block as this house and, for all the stigma people with mental illnesses receive, the residents of this house were some of the nicest people on the block. I can only imagine how they feel facing uncertainty in terms of living situation.