San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced late on Tuesday that she will be proposing a new policy requiring those going on welfare in the city to receive mandatory drug tests and to go into treatment if addicted to help combat the growing drug and homeless problems in the city.
For years, San Francisco has had growing homeless and drug addiction crises. In 2023, both issues reached new extremes in the city and were both highlighted by the national media to help show the continuing decline of the city in recent years. According to city estimates, over 20,000 people in San Francisco experience homeless in a given year, with a recent study finding that over half of the city’s homeless refuse shelter space. Meanwhile, estimates show that 2023 will likely be the deadliest year for drug overdoses in the city on record, with 84 coming in August alone and fentanyl being the catalyst drug for over 70% of the deaths.
With both crises growing, as well as more and more people in the city going on welfare, Mayor Breed took action on Tuesday. In a proposal, Breed said that the 5,200 people on welfare through the County Adult Assistance Program, which provides around $700 a month on average to the homeless and formerly homeless, will have to go through a drug screening to receive the funds. For those found to to be using, then to receive funds they would have to go through a drug treatment program.
In a statement on Tuesday, Breed said that the funds from the $30.3 million a year program often went towards drugs because the funding is not tracked.
“We need to make a significant change,” said Breed. “No more ‘anything goes’ without accountability, no more handouts without accountability. In order to get resources from our city, you will need to be in a substance use disorder program and consistently seeking treatment.
“San Francisco is a city of compassion, but also a city that demands accountability. We fund a wide range of services, and we want to help people get the care they need but under current state law, local government lack tools to compel people into treatment. This initiative aims to create more accountability and help get people to accept the treatment and services they need.”
The announcement polarized many residents in the city on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as the Board of Supervisors, who are to vote on the issue soon. Many Supervisors threw their support behind Breed’s proposal, noting that while it is a big step usually proposed in more right-leaning cities, it is needed in San Francisco to help encourage treatment and recovery, as well as save lives.
“I strongly support Mayor Breed’s initiative, which will better incentivize treatment and recovery for a population that’s at wildly disproportionate risk for drug addiction and overdose fatalities,” said Supervisor and recovering addict Matt Dorsey. “We’re facing an unprecedented loss of life in San Francisco, and we know coercive interventions can work.”
“We’re facing an unprecedented loss of life in San Francisco right now, and we know that coercive interventions can work. This approach reflects a key principle from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to be effective.”
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman also gave support, saying, “San Francisco has earned a reputation as a destination for people who use the most toxic drugs to come, and eventually die. I hope the effort will make the city one where people able to get get sober and build a better life.”
Breed’s drug test proposal
However, the proposal was blasted by others for not being feasible and not being a serious solution.
“These are serious times in San Francisco — and we need serious ideas, not politicians desperately grasping for a political lifeline,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “Mayor Breed does not have the ability, or the will, to organize our many public safety resources to close down drug supermarkets and open-air fencing of stolen goods. If she can’t find the way to prevent several hundred brazen criminals from selling deadly drugs, how does she think she will find the resources to drug test thousands of welfare recipients?”
“The answer is she can’t, and she won’t, and this would simply be silly politics if the issues we face as a city were not so serious.”
My response to Mayor’s pledge this morning to cut off access to welfare without forced drug testing & treatment.
If we somehow have the resources to test thousands of welfare recipients, we have the resources to arrest & charge 500 brazen drug dealers and fight priority crime. pic.twitter.com/sO0isqLUaL
— Aaron Peskin (@AaronPeskin) September 26, 2023
As of Wednesday, it is not known if the proposal will have enough support to pass at the Board of Supervisors level. Others have proposed that, if it doesn’t pass there, it should go to the voters to decide on instead. Political experts have also concurred, noting both the deep divide on the issue in San Francisco, as well as it coming before a major Mayoral race in 2024.
“Breed is doing everything to turn around San Francisco after so many things have gone wrong there under her watch,” said political advisor Sharon Lee to the Globe on Tuesday. “Residents there have been bucking progressive trends for the last few years as a result. The School Board saw a jolt through a recall last year, the District Attorney’s office has been more gung ho on prosecutions after Chesa Boudin was run out of town, and people there have generally been more embracing of more and more hardline things to get the situation under wraps.”
“It’s still out of control on the city right now. They’re losing money, they can’t fund the police, and a lot of issues are going by the wayside. Mandatory drug tests for a welfare program, that would have been unthinkable there 5 years ago, but now, because of all the problems, it is being discussed.”
“Breed also doesn’t want to lose in the Mayoral race next year. A lot of opponents are coming out of the woodwork, and this is something that can get results pretty quick. If this passes and it does as intended, then she can claim greater welfare accountability, more people going into drug rehab, and finally putting a dent into the city’s drug problem and homeless problem. But, as I said, only if it passes, and even then it might be too little, too late.”
Breed’s welfare drug test proposal is expected to be debated in City Hall soon.