Tents for homeless residents line up Island Street in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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Two San Diego City Councilmembers want to create a unit in the City Attorney’s Office focused on placing homeless residents who are unable to care for themselves in treatment and housing.

City Councilmembers Jennifer Campbell and Marni von Wilpert on Tuesday announced they want to allocate $500,000 for City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office to fund a treatment coordinator to assess individuals’ needs and two deputy city attorneys to coordinate with county officials who oversee conservatorships, make referrals and file petitions in court. 

The councilmembers’ budget proposal coincides with a wave of statewide discussion about behavioral health reforms including a controversial pitch by Gov. Gavin Newsom aiming to make it easier to order people with serious mental illnesses to seek treatment. It also coincides with increased activity already playing out on Elliott’s watch.

The San Diego County’s Public Conservator’s Office has long led the charge when it comes to recommending conservatorships and overseeing treatment and other decisions for people considered to be a danger to themselves or others, or to be deemed “gravely disabled.”

But since 2020, Elliott’s office has said city attorneys have formally made roughly a dozen referrals to the county to urge officials to pursue probate conservatorships for people the city decided couldn’t care for themselves. And von Wilpert said Tuesday that Elliott’s office is now reviewing about 20 additional cases.

Campbell and von Wilpert argue additional staffing for a conservatorship and treatment unit is needed so the city can have more tools to help a limited number of people who often cycle in and out of emergency rooms and generate lots of 911 calls.

Campbell recounted the story of one man recently placed in a conservatorship after a petition by city attorneys who had more than 500 contacts with emergency service workers in a year. On one of those calls, San Diego Fire-Rescue workers found him lying across trolley tracks.

“I think people need to see the city really caring for those who are most vulnerable on the streets,” von Wilpert said.

She said the goal would be to connect homeless residents with significant needs with services that work best for them. Those services could include conservatorships or less restrictive options such as skilled nursing facilities or city diversion programs.

Elliott spokeswoman Leslie Wolf Branscomb on Tuesday said the office welcomed the proposal.

“Councilmembers Campbell and von Wilpert were aware of the work our office is doing to help heavy utilizers of emergency services get proper access to substance use, mental health and medical treatment,” Wolf Branscomb wrote in an email. “They also understood that the co-occurrence of these disorders often results in homelessness, which creates additional barriers to accessing care.”

If Mayor Todd Gloria ultimately includes the funding in his revised budget later this month and fellow council members sign off, Wolf Branscomb said the $500,000 allocation will allow Elliott’s office to continue to make referrals and to petition the court if the county doesn’t take action.

Gloria, who has backed Newsom’s reform push and advocated for other state policy changes, said in a Tuesday statement that he looks forward to learning more during budget hearings in coming days.

“We must make it easier to get people struggling with repeated mental-health crises in our community the help they need, whether they are housed or unhoused,” Gloria wrote.

Campbell and von Wilpert’s proposal is likely to face blowback.

Civil rights groups and advocates for homeless residents and people with disabilities have long raised concerns about forced treatment and the availability of shelter, housing and services for those who officials decide need that treatment.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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5 Comments

  1. This conservatorship unit is finally a step in the right direction and instead of advocates fighting it they should come along side it and work WITH the program to ensure it’s success while making it safe, fair and whatever else they find wrong with getting people the help & treatment they need but refuse to get while also getting them off the streets. Seems like a win-win to me & finally something I can get behind!

    1. I agree. However, I am concerned about the capacity of mental health workers and various institutional settings for handling the volume of people who would be placed under conservatorships. Data show that at least 40% of the homeless have serious mental health or substance abuse problems.

      1. This is Dan Smiechowski a candidate for D2 SDCC. If the very people who propose this public policy with their quarter million dollars of donations can dupe the voters into political prostitution, then, they can fund your concerns on their nickel.

  2. I would like to see better tracking of our mentally ill homeless. How many have been offered treatment, took the treatment, stayed with the treatment, went off the treatment? The conservatorship expansion, while needed, it’s only going to be able to help a small number. Staying on your medication, and staying off drugs is tough over the long run. In this way, we can see what programs work the best, and what programs need to be revised, and what resources are lacking, or underutilized. The revolving door of longitudinal mental health treatment is a big problem.

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