Senators Wiener and Stern Announce Bill to Expand Conservatorships to Help Mentally Ill and Drug-Addicted People Dying on California’s Streets

Bill will create process for counties to conserve individuals who suffer from chronic homelessness accompanied by severe mental illness, severe drug addiction, repeated commitments, or exceptionally frequent use of emergency medical services
February 1, 2018

Sacramento –  Today, Senators Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) announced a bill to expand conservatorships for California’s most vulnerable residents who cannot care for themselves and who are dying on our streets. 

The California conservatorship system is one of the most important safeguards for protecting individuals incapable of managing their own affairs. Currently two kinds of conservatorship are authorized in California: Lanterman-Petrie-Short (LPS) conservatorships are designated for individuals who are “gravely disabled” and thus unable to care for themselves, while probate conservatorships are designed for individuals unable to care for themselves due to physical health issues, cognitive impairment, or elder abuse.

The bill allows local governments more flexibility in expanding the reach the conservatorship system, modernizing its administration, and assisting individuals who suffer from chronic homelessness, accompanied by debilitating mental illness, severe drug addiction, repeated psychiatric commitments, or excessively frequent use of emergency medical services.

According to Senator Wiener: “California is in the midst of a crisis, with very sick people suffering and dying on our streets. This is a life-or-death situation, and it is beyond inhumane to sit back and watch as these people die. We must take action, and action means helping people get off the streets, into housing, and into supportive services to get their lives back. The current conservatorship law is inadequate to meet our counties’ needs around chronic homeless people with severe mental illness or drug addiction. Our counties need more tools to help those who can no longer help themselves and to get these individuals housed and into life-saving services. Over the coming months, we will work closely with counties, cities, advocates, and others to craft a bold and comprehensive bill that will save lives.”

According to Senator Stern: “Currently, local governments’ hands are tied by an old model of conservatorship that has not been updated to address the crisis on our streets.  People are dying who do not know how to help themselves, and our communities suffer with them.  It is our job in Sacramento to enable the innovation already underway at the local level to modernize our antiquated and inhumane conservatorship system.”

California faces an unprecedented housing affordability crisis, accompanied by significant untreated mental illness and drug addiction. These conditions, coupled with the limitations of our state and local social services, have left some counties searching for more tools to provide help and support to those Californians in the most need. In San Francisco, many of the successful programs and services have still fallen short of providing meaningful rehabilitation to a small population of residents with severe mental illness and drug addiction who are deteriorating on the city’s streets. Los Angeles faces similar challenges. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is currently evaluating the efficacy and reach of their conservatorship system pursuant to a motion coauthored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kathryn Barger.

Many of these people routinely use social and emergency services and find themselves in law enforcement custody, effectively converting a health issue into a criminal issue. By allowing greater flexibility to conserve these extremely disabled individuals - who are unable to make decisions for themselves - we can keep people out of the criminal justice system and focus on their health and well-being.

San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell said: “In San Francisco, we remain committed to providing compassionate and comprehensive services to our vulnerable populations. Conservatorship is a serious process reserved only for those most in need, including those whose health is complicated by living on the streets. This bill will offer a new path to stable housing, wellness and recovery.”

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed said: “Enough is enough. The mental health crisis on our streets is unsafe, unsustainable and inhumane. If I were struggling with mental health issues on our streets, I would want the City to do everything in their power to intervene and get me the help I need. That’s why for the last year, I’ve been working on legislation to strengthen our mental health conservatorship program locally which will help provide robust representation and wraparound services for those who have cycled in and out of our system with no real results. I look forward to introducing this legislation in the coming weeks. Without changes to state law, our ability to actually scale this impact is incredibly limited. I wholeheartedly support Senators Wiener and Stern’s efforts to finally turn the tide on this issue.”

Barbara Garcia, Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health said, “We are supportive of measures that will help provide our community members who have addiction disorders and who are homeless with more intensive treatment options. Treatment support and care is critically needed to  reduce suffering and save lives.”

The bill will be introduced as intent language, so that Senators Wiener and Stern can work with local governments, service providers, and advocates over the coming months to determine how to ensure the conservatorships are structured to best help those most in need of shelter and recovery, should those counties elect to use it. No county will be required to use the new conservatorship.

The intent language introduced will read as follows:

“It is the intent of the Legislature to expand conservatorships to better meet the needs of the most vulnerable individuals who suffer from chronic homelessness accompanied by severe mental illness, drug addiction, repeated commitments, or exceptionally frequent use of emergency medical services.

Furthermore, it is the intent of the Legislature to maintain the many checks and balances necessary to protect individuals with mental illness from being incorrectly or unnecessarily placed on conservatorship, while facilitating their path to permanent housing and necessary supportive services.”