Open Letter on Conservatorship to the Citizens of San Francisco and Mayor London Breed

This is an open letter to the citizens of San Francisco and Mayor London Breed. We are concerned about the push to use “conservatorship” to remove unhoused people from view. This approach is dangerous and does not create more housing, more beds for treatment, more resources for addressing health, addiction or other basic needs. It does increase police contact with people who have housing and health needs, which is the wrong tool to address homelessness. People who seek voluntary services face long waiting lists and barriers to getting the help they want and need. Nothing about this approach to conservatorship will make services more available, and we know that services sought out voluntarily are the most likely to have a lasting impact.

SURJ is dedicated to racial justice and critical of how policing and incarceration are used as a tool of white supremacy. Already, San Francisco disproportionately incarcerates Black people and other people of color. This overuse of policing has also resulted in 24 deaths at the hands of police officers during George Gascon’s term as DA (since 2011).

The approach to conservatorship being considered means that after eight 5150s (a procedure where police determine that someone is a danger to themselves or another), a person could be conserved, losing basic rights to control their bodies, health care decisions, and even the right to vote. This is a deepening of The New Jim Crow. Michelle Alexander’s book focused on how a series of laws and their disproportionate implementation in Black and other communities of color intentionally stripped Black communities of basic human rights through incarceration. The use of conservatorship considered by San Francisco would take this systematic deprivation of human rights to a deeper, more permanent and more sinister level. The fact we are even considering this approach should remind us that we are as much like Ferguson, MO, as any other city in America.

Considering this approach to conservatorship has already created pressure for officers to “start a file” by 5150ing unhoused people or people behaving outside of middle or upper class white behavioral norms. This increased police contact pushes people who are disproportionately Black, people of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and poor (or some intersection of all of these factors) into instability and into the criminal justice system. This increased police contact has already been deadly for loved ones like Jessica Williams, Mario Woods, Luis Pat Gongora, Alex Nieto, and more people whose names are less well known. There are a disproportionate number of people of color with mental health disabilities who are shot and killed. Increasing interactions of police with people with mental health conditions is a recipe for disaster.

To be clear, SFPD is the last link in a chain of systemic racism in which most San Franciscans are complicit. This chain includes people who voted for measures outlawing tents or sitting/lying on the sidewalk, it includes politicians who have failed to invest in affordable housing, who have undermined renter protections and who have given massive tax breaks to tech companies without protecting SF residents from displacement. This chain includes every resident who calls the police on a homeless person or someone acting outside of white behavioral expectations.

SURJ SF reminds the residents of San Francisco that we are not immune to racism and we are not immune to creating white supremacist systems. We call on residents and decision makers to reject an approach to conservatorship which expands “The New Jim Crow” and deepens systemic racism in our city while doing nothing to address homelessness and increase access to mental health care. We call on our rich city to invest in affordable housing and remove barriers to voluntary services. We ask all of us to think critically about how we participate in systems of white supremacy, including calling police on our most vulnerable neighbors.