by Meghan “Roadkill” Johnson

When someone describes what America means to them, somewhere in their words echoes the word Freedom. We can all rest assured, being born American, we have our civil liberties intact. But now none of that matters as a chilling bill rises to strip our freedoms away. Back in the November 2018 elections, as propositions and new state legislative bills were being voted in or out, a very scary bill came out onto the horizon and it became apparent that the majority public was in favor of it.

From its name alone, not much would set you off. Going further into it, its text has come alive, a haunting cornucopia of oppression, concocted by state senator Scott Wiener. What it entails is San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles would be launching a five-year pilot program to expand conservatorship on the most vulnerable people.

The bill labeled SB1045 was originally named “Homeless Conservatorship,” written to target homeless people and active drug users. It is disguised as wanting to create “solutions” for chronic mental illness and chronic homelessness but leaves out any mention of housing options or mental and behavioral health management.

To make matters more complicated, SB40 was thrown into the mix to further criminalize and target anyone seen as a “threat”. The public would be able to misuse this and call in homeless neighbors for any reason, giving police a justification to snatch people off the street on a 24- to 48-hour psychiatric hold, known as a 5150. Anyone who has had between eight to 12 consecutive 5150s during 12- to 18-month periods would be automatically detained and taken to a conservatorship facility.

Conservatorship is also nothing new in California. San Francisco has a dark past circling around it and was one of the first cities to pass the “ugly laws” back in the 1800s. The law then said no one with a visible disability could be seen in public. Due to this harsh and radical law, people were forced into hiding or mental institutions and could not earn income for themselves, taking a step deeper into the dark and creating a bigger homeless problem.

Today bringing light to the subject and challenging this law are various nonprofits, like that of the Senior & Disability Action (SDA) and the Coalition on Homelessness (COH).

The SDA came up with a public forum to address opposition to SB1045, rallying the community and hosting community brainstorms on alternatives to this bill. I even joined in on several occasions to be a part of the discussion and hear concerns that were voiced, if this bill was to be implemented.

Amongst the concerned voices were those of chronically disabled, homeless and people with mental health issues — the people who would be hit hardest by the bill.

“The bill would be dehumanizing and demoralizing homeless people in our community because I think for every time that someone loses their rights and is forced into treatment and gets housing that they couldn’t get before, I think that’s gonna show a failure of the system.” said Jessica Lehman, the executive director of Seniors and Disability Action. “Either the number of 5150s will go up, which will be incredibly traumatizing or the police will get called and harass people more often, even if that number doesn’t go up.”

Broad opposition was voiced at a Rules Committee hearing on SB1045 on May 13th, where dozens of community advocates came together to express their concerns. The committee delayed the vote for one week to gather more information about the impact of conservatorship and what resources are available (spoiler alert: there are none).

Says Lehman, “I’m hopeful that it will not be implemented. There’s a clear case about why it’s the wrong approach. Even if not, very few people get conserved, the idea of moving in that direction rather than providing the services that are not being provided, is very scary. I think Supervisors are starting to see that, and I’m hopeful that they will not support this just because people are saying, ‘Here’s a tool and it’s in front of you.’”

Hopefully the coalition that has arisen to challenge this bill will be able to advance a real conversation in the city about the need for better mental health care so that people are able to access help voluntarily, rather than being involuntarily held and increasing trauma within an already traumatized community.