Editorial: SF Supervisor Dorsey steps in it

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday August 9, 2023
Share this Post:
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey. Photo: Courtesy the subject
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey. Photo: Courtesy the subject

If a San Francisco supervisor has a complaint and wants changes made to the city budget, the time to do that is before the spending plan is adopted, not weeks later. Yet, here is gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey issuing a news release and lengthy letter to Mayor London Breed, dated August 4, basically stating that he wants to see drug users jailed and that they can get services behind bars for their addictions. Dorsey wants Breed, who signed the 2023-24 budget July 26, to reallocate the entire $18.9 million budgeted over the next two years for the city's planned Wellness Hubs for Jail Health Services.

Dorsey, a recovering addict himself, claims to still be a "staunch supporter" of supervised consumption sites, whereby people can use drugs on site under the supervision of trained staff. But his news release and letter to the mayor call that into question. He wrote that the reason for his about-face is that the city's plan has shifted from opening three Wellness Hubs to only one, which would be in his South of Market district.

In fact, the city has budgeted for three such facilities, with the SOMA location being the closest to opening. We should also add that the Wellness Hubs won't provide safe consumption services — that will have to wait until nonprofits get such programs up and running as public funds cannot be used for them, per City Attorney David Chiu.

We're skeptical of Dorsey's motivations. Instead, we see Dorsey, who used to be San Francisco Police Chief William Scott's communications director, attempting to remove drug users from the streets by jailing them. That won't make things better on San Francisco streets. And as a person in recovery, Dorsey should know that people don't change their habits or seek treatment for addiction until they are ready.

In other words, you can make someone who's in jail stop using drugs in that controlled environment, but that may not stick once they're released. Under that scenario, there would be no Wellness Hub for them to avail themselves of harm reduction, counseling, or other services after incarceration because Dorsey would have cut all the funding.

It's a head-scratcher.

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen issued a blistering news release of her own in response to Dorsey's. She calls him out on the points we mentioned above, like waiting until the budget has already been signed and not speaking up about his concerns during the numerous budget sessions convened by the Board of Supervisors — exactly the forum for such debates to occur.

"Politicians like Supervisor Dorsey are why we can't make headway on the overdose crisis in San Francisco," Ronen stated. She also pointed out the seven "well researched and vetted plans to address the drug crisis on our streets." These include: Mental Health SF, which Ronen and Breed are collaborating on and which is making headway; the Overdose Prevention Plan; Treatment on Demand; Supervised Injection Task Force; Methamphetamine Task Force; Drug Dealing Task Force; and the Tenderloin Emergency Center.

"Each of these laws, task forces, or emergency interventions have implementation plans — not one of which has been completed," she wrote. All involve time, money, and expert input to create. None of the plans have been given sufficient time or resources to fully implement, she added.

Ronen wrote that Dorsey himself supported the Wellness Hub plans when he voted for the budget last month. "Had Supervisor Dorsey paid attention at the appropriate times, he would know that the request for voluntary services at the one harm reduction center that currently exists have risen from 150 people a day to 500 people," Ronen wrote. "These are 500 individuals with a drug addiction illness seeking voluntary help every single day from just one center in his district that cannot meet the demand. The funded Wellness Centers are designed to meet that demand."

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday, Ronen noted that the three Wellness Hubs budgeted for this fiscal year — in SOMA, the Mission, and the Tenderloin — ideally would open at the same time. That is not possible, however, and in fact a site in the Tenderloin hasn't yet been secured. The SOMA and Mission facilities are closest to opening, she said, and she would support those two locations starting services simultaneously as a way to lessen the impacts on a single neighborhood.

Broad condemnation

Ronen, HealthRIGHT 360, and the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club all stated they were appalled at Dorsey's idea, which is a remnant of the War on Drugs strategy that proved spectacularly unsuccessful and has been discredited. "The War on Drugs, which this regressive law enforcement-first approach represents, and the criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs, have resulted in generational harms, abhorrent racial disparities, overfilled our prisons, and led to increased distrust in police," HealthRIGHT 360 stated. "Reallocating any funding designed for Wellness Hubs would be misguided and shortsighted."

The Milk club echoed those sentiments in its statement and called out Dorsey for a recent interview in which he compared the city's fentanyl crisis to the AIDS epidemic. (Dorsey is HIV-positive.) "It was both stunning and painful as many of us remember the push from Lyndon LaRouche in 1986 to put people with HIV/AIDS into quarantine camps," the club stated.

It also added that according to media reports, of the 191 people arrested from the Tenderloin and SOMA since June 1 solely for using drugs in public, not one person accepted offers of services and treatment through Jail Health Services, which is where Dorsey wants the Wellness Hub money to go. Ronen said that Jail Health Services has 27 funded positions that are not filled, in part because it is so difficult to find qualified mental health workers for such jobs.

Elected San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju has also panned Dorsey's proposal, stating that the city's policy of arresting drug users has been an "utter failure." "The city's latest program of arresting and detaining individuals for public drug intoxication has been an utter failure by all accounts, and calling for increased funding of this cruel program defies all logic," Raju stated. "These sweeps ignore evidence-based solutions to our city's public health crisis and have not been successful in connecting people who have been arrested to treatment."

Many of those who have been arrested have been forced to go through withdrawal in a cage, often in lockdown conditions, Raju added. Therefore, it's not surprising that they haven't accepted offers from Jail Health Services. Raju added that studies have shown that forced treatment can have negative effects. That's something Dorsey should be aware of.

In his letter to the mayor, Dorsey noted that supervised consumption sites are not part of the Wellness Hubs and that is correct. As we mentioned above, Chiu has argued that city funds cannot be used for the supervised consumption sites because of federal laws.

Another huge obstacle is Governor Gavin Newsom's veto last year of a bill that would have created pilot programs for supervised consumption sites in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. (That veto, which we strongly opposed, has helped set the city up for failure in getting a grip on the overdose problems of today, as we have noted, and furthermore Newsom has sent California Highway Patrol officers to the Tenderloin, another example of over-policing instead of providing services.) Yet, as we've also noted, several nonprofits are committed to working to get supervised consumption site(s) opened.

In the meantime, Mental Health SF and the creation of a network of Wellness Hubs crafted in the overdose prevention plan are meant to provide the infrastructure necessary to provide treatment immediately when needed for anyone who voluntarily or forcibly enters care, Ronen stated. That includes harm reduction supplies like clean needles and counseling.

Ronen stated that the three Wellness Centers in the budget that was just approved have the support of the Department of Public Health, as does Mental Health SF. The Tenderloin Center provided services like food, counseling, and benefit application assistance to thousands of people during its 11-month run. One of the reasons the city is in such dire straits now is that when Breed closed the Tenderloin Center, she did so without another facility in place where people could go. The Wellness Hubs are supposed to be that plan, although they should have been operational when the Tenderloin Center was shuttered. Put another way, the closure of the Tenderloin Center shows exactly why the hubs are needed — people returned to the streets, where many of them use drugs. Carting them off to jail won't solve the problem, but it will exacerbate the issues that are already present on the city's streets.

Breed should reject Dorsey's letter and the city needs to go about getting the Wellness Hubs open.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.