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Clock ticking on SF to create six Navigation Centers within two years

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Mayor Ed Lee tours the Civic Center Hotel — soon to become the second Navigation Center in San Francisco — on April 19. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Housing the homeless in nontraditional shelters will be commonplace in San Francisco following the Board of Supervisors’ approval of legislation Tuesday.

Supervisor David Campos’ legislation mandating the creation of six Navigation Centers within two years was approved in a unanimous vote. The City must now add three more sites within the year, in addition to the existing center at 16th and Mission streets, which opened in March 2015.

The support across political lines, including from Mayor Ed Lee and his new director of homelessness, came following months of conflict over the issue, during which the mayor was criticized for not doing enough to respond to homelessness following a surge in encampments.

Jeff Kositsky, the mayor’s newly tapped director of the soon-to-launch Department of Homelessness, had requested a continuance of the vote on the proposal May 17 to have more time to review it. The delay led to further refinement, such as stripping the proposal of a requirement that one Navigation Center would allow drinking alcohol on site.

Kositsky said he requested the removal of the drinking provision because he needed more time to study the idea and examine housing that allows drinking on site.

“I’ve never heard of a wet shelter before. I’ve heard of wet housing,” he said.

Another provision to explore whether one site should have a supervised injection area was previously removed.

“It really matches up quite well with the direction of the department that has been set by Mayor Lee,” Kositsky told the board moments before the vote. “It is an acknowledgment of the success of the first Navigation Center and as well as the people of San Francisco’s frustration with the growing street population.”

The Navigation Center model has grown in popularity since the first of its kind opened in the Mission District in March 2015. The model, which has less rules of conduct than conventional homeless shelters — no curfew and the allowance of pets and belongings, for example — has seemingly reached a segment of the homeless population who avoid existing shelters.

Guests at the Navigation Centers are also provided with mental and health services and placed on an expedited track to transition within months into longer-term housing, such as single-room occupancy hotels.

The City is well underway to complying with the law in the first year. The Civic Center Hotel Navigation Center is expected to officially launch within two weeks and has already housed 36 homeless people who were referred by Homeless Outreach Team during the past several months, according to Gail Gilman, executive director of the Community Housing Partnership, the nonprofit managing the site. Gilman said there is space for 50 more people.

Another Navigation Center is being explored for the Dogpatch neighborhood, though The City is still conducting community outreach.

The City plans to open its third Navigation Center within the year by converting an existing homeless shelter in an undetermined location, Kositsky said.

Campos introduced the proposal following the controversial sweeps beginning in late February of hundreds of homeless residents who had set up tent encampments along Division Street. The encampments in that area grew when The City closed off the area around Justin Herman Plaza for weeks to host Super Bowl 50 festivities, which seemingly displaced those who were living there.

Campos said the proposal is about addressing the proliferation of encampments “in a humane, effective way.”

“This is a critical step in addressing one key part of the homeless crisis.” Campos said.

The City defended the sweeps, noting that homeless were offered beds at a temporary shelter at Pier 80. But critics called the sweeps inhumane and emphasized that San Francisco lacks the infrastructure to house the thousands of people who are homeless.

“We can live with it,” Lee said of Campos’ proposal. “He’s given us a full two years to implement it. We have plans that were already in the works to accomplish a good deal of it. We are working urgently.”

Part of the challenge is to find neighborhoods willing to accept new homeless shelters, even if they are designed to be temporary.

The mayor, who said he’d like to see an additional Navigation Center in the Dogpatch, acknowledged that support from the neighborhood hasn’t been immediate and that moving the site one block over helped gain support by showing that The City will “not just kind of impose it on folks.”

“The more people we expose the [Navigation] Centers to, the more they feel comfortable with the idea that we are really helping people,” Lee said. “They are actually quite safe centers. We literally improved all of the behavior in and around that [Navigation] Center at 16th and Mission.”

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