Out in the Ingleside district sits a little yellow house where Melanie Brandt lives with roommates. She gardens out back and manages to communicate a little with her Cantonese-speaking neighbors over the fence. She hands out candy to the neighborhood kids on Halloween.
But the neighbors don’t know what kind of house it is. They don’t know that inside live people who are now stable after experiencing severe mental health or drug addiction crises like those that play out before horrified San Franciscans on our downtown sidewalks every day. Those crises make us wonder why such a rich city — with an $11 billion annual budget — can’t do better.
San Francisco can do better, and the little yellow house is one solution.
It’ll be replicated with the backing of $25 million if two city supervisors have their way. Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney on Tuesday will introduce legislation to set aside money in the city’s next round of windfall funding — property taxes left over after the public schools are funded at the required level — to pay for more of these co-ops in neighborhoods around the city. The city would use the money to buy up more homes like the one in the Ingleside, which nonprofits would manage. Currently, 183 people live in these co-ops in San Francisco, and the nonprofits that run them say they could easily house twice as many.
“We have a broken mental health and substance abuse system in San Francisco. Everyone will cop to and agree that it’s a mess,” said Ronen. “The financial waste is absurd. The human cost is absurd. And the frustration of San Franciscans is absurd.”
She said 44 percent of people released from 90-day residential treatment beds are sent back to the streets, where they risk falling back into mental health crisis and drug addiction almost immediately. Others wind up in large supportive housing facilities in the Tenderloin, South of Market and the Mission, where the lure of drugs is right outside.
Brandt’s journey to the yellow home’s front bedroom, with a twin bed and a stack of novels beside it, began one scary night in February 2009. She’d been homeless about a year after getting evicted from the Sunset District home she and her mother rented. Both she and her mom struggled with depression and anxiety and soothed themselves with addictions — drugs and alcohol for Brandt and spending too much money shopping for her mother.
They lived in her mom’s Ford Explorer for eight months before it was impounded. Her mother moved in with family in Texas, but Brandt didn’t want to leave her hometown. She said she used crack and meth and slept in shelter beds or on the sidewalk in front of the Main Library. That February night, she felt suicidal and took herself to San Francisco General Hospital’s psychiatric emergency room.
“That’s when I said, ‘I just want to die. I can’t do this. I’m scared,’” Brandt recalled.
Brandt said she assumed her only long-term option would be a big mental health hospital somewhere far outside San Francisco. But the nurse told her about a different path. She learned she could stay for two weeks in an “acute diversion unit” for those deep in crisis and then could move to a residential treatment facility for 90 days. After that, she could live indefinitely in a co-op with roommates who also struggle with mental illness and have help from a case manager.
That’s the path she took, with some drug rehab facilities in between, and she’s lived in the co-op for six years.
“I was just delighted that it was a house — it was not a facility,” Brandt said, adding that she was also thrilled it was in a quiet neighborhood and not one rife with drug dealers trying to lure her back into addiction.
She’s had a couple of short relapses, but said she’s been clean and sober for two years. She works as a peer counselor for a nonprofit. She and her roommates meet weekly as a group to discuss chores and other household issues and meet individually with a case manager once a week, as well. The home is rented and managed by Progress Foundation, a nonprofit that runs community-based homes and treatment facilities for mentally ill people.
It makes a whole lot of sense — so, of course, it’s become increasingly scant in San Francisco. Progress Foundation ran 12 co-ops housing 54 people 10 years ago, and now runs seven co-ops housing 33 people. Two other nonprofits also run the co-ops and have seen similar declines. The city’s exorbitant real estate market is largely to blame. Because the nonprofits rent from private landlords, they’re often squeezed out in favor of tenants who can pay more.
Brandt’s home rents for $3,394.80 per month. She and her three roommates each pay $350. A subsidy from the county covers the rest.
Ronen and Haney said they’re determined to fix the city’s broken mental health system and will have some more announcements soon. But another potential solution — opting into an expanded conservatorship program to compel mentally ill people to accept treatment — doesn’t have their backing. Ronen opposes it because she thinks it’s “unworkable” for a number of reasons, and Haney hasn’t taken a position.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, the backer of expanded conservatorship, said he’s hopeful six supervisors will end up supporting it. Currently, it doesn’t have the votes to pass the full board.
“It’s not progressive or compassionate or humane to stand by while people unravel and ultimately die on our streets,” Wiener said. He added that the city can both embrace conservatorship and expand programs to house and treat the mentally ill. The two are not at odds with one another, he said.
“To sit back and say that someone who is sleeping in their feces or screaming at cars in the middle of the street, that we should just expect that person to make coherent decisions about their health care, that’s not a reasonable position,” Wiener said. “The answer is all of the above.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @hknightsf