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EDITORIAL: Navigating a way out for our homeless

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Ashante Jones, 39, in a tent on 13th Street before homeless people were ordered to vacate the area on Feb. 24, 2016. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)
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The homeless have been more visible than usual over the past few weeks. That has been both good and bad news for The City and some of its inhabitants who have nowhere to live.

With last week’s homeless sweeps, uprooting tent dwellers from Division Street and pushing more people to the underused isolated, temporary shelter at Pier 80 on the edge of town, homelessness has become the political cause of the moment. (Much as it has been in San Francisco on and off for the past half century.)

The bad news is those suffering most from this perennial blight, the homeless, have been pushed around with no real solution to make their situation any better while politicians dicker about the next move.

The good news is all this new enthusiasm for addressing the homeless situation might result in better accommodations and more services. No one wins when those suffering are ignored or treated as invisible.

The City has, according to some estimates, approximately 7,000 homeless on its streets — curiously, that figure unsettlingly mirrors the number of San Francisco rentals listed on Airbnb (7,029), according to the website Inside Airbnb, which tracks such data. In a perfect world, someone might find a creative solution lurking here.

But we do not live in such a world, and for San Francisco that means the best way forward seems to be following the model of the Navigation Center, which opened on Mission Street a year ago.

Since then, it’s served 310 clients as of last Monday, placing 127 into permanent housing and providing transportation outside The City under the Homeward Bound program to stable living situations for 109 people.

Not bad, but not nearly enough.

The City needs more navigation centers, and they should be located in every district, not just in the Mission and the Tenderloin. We need more federal and state coordination to make sure adequate housing is available for those who exit the centers.

The City is working on finding more sites, and the latest estimate is that it will take about six months to open a new center.

That is not nearly fast enough.

Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission, responded last week, “I think it’s outrageous that we are talking about six months. It is unacceptable.”

City leaders, for their part, say they are trying. Mayor Ed Lee announced in September he set aside $3 million into a special city fund to pay for additional centers, and Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, told the board’s Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday he is “trying to shrink” the six-month timeline.

In the meantime, the temporary 180-bed shelter at Pier 80, set to close this month, remains the only plan until other centers are found. Dodge said he is working with the Port to keep the temporary shelter in use until May.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, is concerned about what will happen when the shelter closes, forcing people back to the streets.

“Homeless people and their allies are not advocating for humans to stay miserable on the streets,” she wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner last week criticizing the recent homeless sweep. “We are fighting for exits off the streets. In the meantime, we think it is not only cruel but a waste of resources to simply punish and push people, who are already in crisis, from sidewalk to sidewalk.”

Supervisor Jane Kim, writing in the Examiner today, suggests that the problem is bigger than The City can handle on its own. “We need California to declare a statewide emergency on homelessness so we can work as one entire state to address this growing statewide shame,” Kim writes.

San Francisco’s homeless emergency, as Kim puts it — comparing it to an earthquake devastating Southern California — is a state responsibility and requires statewide resources. Now that the issue has all of our attention, again, we must demand the boldest, broadest and most humane response.

As Friedenbach says, “It is our humanity as San Franciscans that is at stake.”

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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