By Carly Cheung
In December 2019, legislators approved Mayor London Breed and Supervisors Hilary Ronen and Matt Haney’s new behavioral health care system, Mental Health SF. Under the new system, there will be a 24-hour central access port for mental health and substance use treatment services for uninsured individuals and individuals on public health programs like Medi-Cal, prioritizing those experiencing homelessness. It includes a centralized drop-in center and drop-off destinations for first responders and jails and a drug sobering center. The Mayor and Supervisors are working to secure $100-150 million annually, likely by reforming the business tax laws and examining other revenue sources. They are also working to expand treatment capacity, reduce wait time, and add additional resources and centers, according to a Dec. 10 news release from the mayor’s office.
Critics denounce the spending of additional tax dollars towards mental health services on top of the $400 million already going towards that service. The plan aims to mainly service San Francisco’s large homeless population, of around 4000 individuals, by providing timely and easy mental health care, which the previous services were not providing.
High cost of living, evictions, and disproportionate incomes require the government to spend additional money to assist those who encountered enormous distress and are surviving in a life-threatening environment.
San Francisco’s homeless population has increased by 17% from 2017 to 2019, according to a report released by the social research firm Applied Survey Research (ASR). Among the 8,035 unhoused individuals, the chronically homeless are one of the most vulnerable populations on the street and make up 38% of the homeless population. The majority are adults without children and the minority are veterans and unaccompanied youth under 25 years old. Chronically homeless individuals do not have work or housing. “63% of survey respondents reported alcohol or substance use. Fifty-three percent (53%) reported living with a psychiatric or emotional condition, 52% with post-traumatic stress disorder, and 48% with a chronic health problem,” according to ASR.
Most were San Francisco residents well before they were homeless. The high rates of job loss, divorce, eviction, settling high healthcare debts, abusive relationships, alcohol or drug abuse, convictions, loss of caretaker(s), and mental or physical disabilities in San Francisco are at the root of homelessness.
“70% of respondents reported living in San Francisco at the time they most recently became homeless. Of those, over half (55%) reported living in San Francisco for 10 or more years,” the ASR report stated.
Only 6% reported living in San Francisco for less than one year.
To return these longstanding members of our community to healthy conditions, it requires an increased contribution from companies, citizens, and the government. Philanthropic efforts such as those demonstrated by Citibank, Google, Bank of America, Merk, and Microsoft show that contributing through donations or providing development programs for underserved populations can create a huge difference, but they aren’t enough. The government should encourage both individual citizens and nonprofits for their work, but it must also increase the number of jobs and pay for social workers.
Furthermore, government programs and plans are only effective if individuals are aware of the resources and are willing to receive help. Among the one-third of survey respondents who reported not receiving government support, “30% reported not wanting government assistance. Fifteen percent (15%) did not think they were eligible for services, 14% reported they had never applied,” according to ASR. Hopefully, the visibility of the Mental Health SF plan will help spread awareness.
By working together and combining efforts to assist the homeless population and raise awareness of these new services, San Francisco can build a better community that promotes positive mental health and alleviate some of the burdens of homelessness.