I feel sorry for the city's planning commissioners. With most of the serious issues revolving around the proposed expansion of the guest home, they find themselves lost in the mucky bog of he-said, she-said, a confounding territory where everyone is afforded inviolate rights of plausible deniability and assertion.

And the mental health advocates assert very loudly, indeed. Bill Hirsh, director of the Mental Health Association, savaged the guest home's neighbors at a Planning Commission hearing late last month. In an increasingly sonic whine, Hirsh insisted that because of need, the city should feel free to waive density rules at residential care homes. And, he contended, the city should brush off the concerns of the neighbors, because there is no legal need for their approval of the proposed expansion.

Hirsh is a lawyer, and in a narrow sense he is right. The city is not legally required to take the neighbors' point of view in-to account.

But how credible is he, really, on this issue?
In an interview, he admitted he had never visited the Johnson home, or seen it from the outside. And he has never tried to read the file on the home at the Community Care Licensing Bureau.

I have done the research, and I think I've come up with an approach that will help the city's planning commissioners sort through the back-and-forth arguing about the Johnson Group Home.

The biggest problem with the guest home, and I suspect with many other long-term residential care facilities, is simple, and not open to interpretation or spin. There are just too many damn people in too small of a space, and the situation would only worsen if eight more people were put in the home.

Yes, the argument over the Johnson Guest Home does center on the quality of life of the mentally ill. But their quality of life will be improved by specifically not doing what the so-called mental health advocates have so loudly and arrogantly campaigned for.

The Johnsons currently house 18 residents in 11 bedrooms; there are three bathrooms. They are asking the Planning Commission to let them house 26 people in 16 bedrooms with four bathrooms.

The planning code and the state licensed care home law contain some broad outlines regarding density. And the 26-people-in-16-rooms proposal may, with the right massaging, fit into the realm of the legally acceptable.

But 26 people in 16 bedrooms is too crowded. Way too crowded, when you're talking about people with the kinds of problems afflicting those housed at the Johnson facility. If the expansion were allowed, the residents couldn't have the level of privacy and elbow room they need to enjoy life, under any reasonable definition of the word "enjoy."

When public officials face difficult decisions -- decisions for which they will be damned, regardless -- they should go back to basics. In this case, the basics involve helping mentally ill people live humanely. I am absolutely certain that the decision that best serves those 18 troubled people at the foot of Potrero Hill will also serve the long-term political interests of the planning officials who make it, no matter how many smug, unreconstructed liberal advocates are stirred into frothy rages.

George Cothran ( can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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