Alex Lemberg, EVNA Vice-President
District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, together with Mayor London Breed and Supervisors Vallie Brown and Catherine Stefani, introduced an ordinancein November 2018 to implement the new Housing Conservatorship program passed by the California Legislature in last year’s Senate Bill 1045 by Senator Scott Wiener. This controversial measure faces opposition from civil rights proponents such as the Coalition on Homelessness because of its potential impingement on human rights and civil liberties. I sought to analyze the potential impacts of this ordinance.
As a housing rights and eviction defense attorney in the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, I work with clients who have mental illnesses and addiction problems every day. Years ago, I, too, experienced homelessness and drug addiction in San Francisco. Between these experiences, I am very sensitive to laws, regulations, and law enforcement that may cause constitutional or human rights violations. I admit that I was highly reticent to increase conservatorships in any way.
Conservatorships are one of the touchiest areas of the law. The U.S. and California Constitutions guarantee all people that their life, liberty, and property may not be abridged by the government without due process of law. Adults in this country are presumed capable of making major life decisions regarding their health, finances, and familial autonomy. Because the concept of conservatorship touches all three of these constitutional guarantees, extreme scrutiny must be applied to any law that alters these rights.
The new Housing Conservatorship program that would be implemented and operated by Supervisor Mandelman’s ordinance essentially adds two major components to the set of tools available to social workers, city housing staff, and other networks that provide support to homeless people. First, it expands the City of San Francisco’s ability to treat people who suffer from severe drug addiction and mental health disorders. Possibly the only identifiable code section number that has made an impact on popular culture, Section 5150 of the California Welfare & Institutions Code, curiously permits the conservatorship of individuals with mental health disorders co-occurring with alcoholism, but not drug addiction. Supervisor Mandelman’s ordinance permits services providers with the ability to conserve people with drug addiction, fixing an odd loophole. Second, for the very few individuals this new type of conservatorship would affect, the new ordinance adds a new requirement: providing permanent supportive housing.
My biggest concern with this ordinance was the potential for abuse. I imagined scenarios in which police targeted the autonomy of homeless people who exhibited criminal behaviors. I imagined sweeps of homeless encampments resulting in serious human rights violations. While San Francisco is not free from these abuses, this ordinance neither encourages nor permits these types of untenable situations. For example, the new ordinance adopts S.B. 1045’s requirement that a person must be put under a 72-hour psychiatric hold eight times in a twelve-month period in order to be eligible for a Housing Conservatorship. This high bar ensures that only people who really need these conservatorships will receive them. Additionally, the ordinance creates a governing working group to oversee the Housing Conservatorship program that includes disability rights advocates, homeless services providers, members of the Department of Public Health, and addiction experts, among many others. This ensures public accountability.
Supervisor Mandelman’s ordinance is thoughtfully crafted, considerate of the dignity of homeless individuals, and would create an avenue for some of the neediest and most vulnerable people in our City to obtain supportive housing, which is proven to be the best model for housing longevity of homeless people who have serious mental illnesses. I fully expected that given my beliefs I would be fully against this measure, but even a skeptic such as I cannot find any grave flaws with this ordinance.
In its current iteration, this ordinance would create a smart, thoughtful program that I believe may significantly increase the housing and health outcomes for some of San Francisco’s most troubled residents. Please consider supporting this ordinance so it can become law and begin helping people.