My eight-year old daughter and I were walking down the street one night recently when we saw a man lying on the sidewalk, shivering under a blanket and in obvious distress. Sadly, this sight is so commonplace in San Francisco that it is no longer unexpected. But to my daughter, it was horrifying to see another person suffering this way. She burst into tears and asked me questions to try to comprehend what she was seeing — Why doesn’t he have a home? Is he sick? Is he cold? Where can he go? Does he have a mom or dad who can help him? These are simplistic and heartfelt questions to which we must find answers.
As your supervisor, these questions plague me every day. Through every neighborhood in District 2 and throughout the city, we see people living on the streets and suffering. Letting people live like this — especially those who suffer from mental illness and addiction — is not right and it certainly isn’t compassionate.
This is not just a homeless crisis; it is also a public health crisis.
The number of people living on our streets with mental health or substance abuse issues — or both — is staggering. According to the 2017 Homeless Count, more than two-thirds of our homeless population reported one or more health conditions, with 41 percent struggling with substance abuse and 39 percent with mental illness. These numbers are even higher among our chronically homeless, those individuals who have experienced homelessness for a year or longer and also have a condition that prevents them from maintaining work or housing.
Among this population, 65 percent are struggling with drug and alcohol abuse and 63 percent are suffering from a psychiatric condition. These are the people we see on our streets every day, wandering through our neighborhoods, sleeping in doorways and struggling to survive. Many of them cycle through our hospitals or jails, and just end up back on the street again, facing the same issues. It’s harmful to them, bad for our neighborhoods, and costly to the city.
Earlier this month, I voted to give the city attorney’s office authority over conservatorship proceedings. Conservatorship is a process by which the city can compel people suffering from mental illness into treatment or place them under the care of a guardian. Previously, these cases were handled by the district attorney’s office, where these people were treated as criminals. Mental illness is not a crime and conservatorship is not a punishment. It is a critical tool we need to use to help get people off the streets and into the medical treatment they need. I am confident this important step will help reform and improve the conservatorship program and help people get the care they need.
Further, I support Senator Scott Wiener’s bill (SB 1045), which would create a new conservatorship to serve our most at-risk individuals — those experiencing the combined weight of chronic homelessness, serious mental illness, and substance abuse. It would give San Francisco more tools to help people who are clearly incapable of caring for themselves or engaging in voluntary services. This legislation would help provide supportive housing with wraparound services to the most vulnerable individuals living on our streets.
Once we get people into treatment, we need to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep them housed. It doesn’t help anyone if they end up homeless again. That’s why I co-sponsored legislation to prioritize supportive housing for those coming out of our treatment programs who would otherwise be released to the streets. If we invest in people to go through 90-day treatment programs and then release them back to the streets again, we are doing everyone a disservice. In addition to prioritizing supportive housing, we should also work regionally to find options for those trying to rebuild their lives.
Finally, this month Mayor Mark Farrell announced bold plans to improve the city’s homelessness prevention and treatment plans. This includes doubling Homeward Bound, an extremely successful program that reunites people who are homeless with friends or family who will take them in and help them overcome the cycle of homelessness. Last year this program served nearly 900 people, and this year fewer than 4 percent of those served have returned to San Francisco. The mayor’s plans also include expanding our shelter capacity, funding four new navigation centers, and adding nearly 200 housing units for homeless residents. I strongly support these programs and, as a member of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee, I will fight to protect them in this year’s budget.
We won’t solve our homeless issues if we don’t treat the issues that are causing people to become homeless. We must use the tools we have wisely and develop new tools such as SB 1045 to stop perpetuating the trauma suffered by our chronically homeless and our city as a whole.