SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – Dozens of new hospital beds for the mentally ill and homeless in San Francisco are  located in a locked facility, renewing a debate about California’s commitment laws.

While there are no locks on the patient room doors, or bars on the windows, those who are sent there by the court are locked in while receiving treatment.

San Francisco’s interim mayor Mark Farrell cut the ribbon on the new, $5 million a year, 54-bed mental health ward at St. Mary’s Medical Center on Monday.

“There are people out there that need our help, that cannot help themselves,” Farrell said.

And there are people out there who may be so mentally ill or drugged up that they don’t even know they need help.

“These are the people who are talking to themselves on the street corners. The ones that we hear about all the time,” Farrell said.

The new ward doubles the number of locked beds in San Francisco and will allow for more and longer commitments than the usual three day or three week stays that often wind up putting people right back on the street, without any real change in their lives.

San Francisco Health Director Barbara Garcia said “somebody who really needs support may stay here for up to a year.”

Still, the idea of locking up the mentally ill is a tricky one.

That has civil rights lawyers like mayoral candidate Angela Alioto raising questions.

“Conservativeship is a very, very serious thing to do to somebody. It takes away all of their freedoms, completely, 24-7, ”Alioto said.

Garcia said those sent to the facility by the court have to stay but can appeal their case every 30 days.

Homeless advocates are raising questions as well, especially when there is also a move afoot at the same time to change state laws to make it easier to commit people.

State Sen. Scott Wiener has called for more help for “…people who are severely drug addicted, severely mentally ill and who are deteriorating and dying on our streets.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness said, “We need more places for people to go and the issue about making it easier to lock people or not, doesn’t really make a difference.”

Interim Mayor Farrell said, “We need to have a bottom line of decency and decorum on our streets and this is part of that solution.”

In California, as it stands right now, you can only be locked up if you pose a danger to yourself or others. Farrell and others are saying that needs to change in order to help those who need help and just aren’t seeking it.

Sen. Wiener has not yet announced what exact changes he is proposing to the law.

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