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SF supes say short stays in costly Navigation Centers not helping the homeless

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A man sleeps near a homeless encampment on Barneveld Avenue in San Francisco near where the city plans to open a new Navigation Center. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A 60-day cap on stays in Navigation Center beds is traumatizing for homeless residents who are sent back out on the streets and is not helping to solve the homelessness crisis, members of the Board of Supervisors said Wednesday.

There are currently 352 Navigation Center beds in San Francisco, a fraction of the 2,300 shelter beds used to temporarily house the homeless.

Navigation Centers are a new model of shelter praised for their relaxed rules, robust social services and ability to operate in select areas for a finite period. They come at a higher cost than traditional shelter beds, $40 to $60 per bed per day compared to $90 to $95.

But a policy of limiting bed stays to 60-days was criticized during Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee by Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Jeff Sheehy.

“Frankly you, like, traumatize them twice,” Sheehy said. He said when they are brought into the Navigation Center “their whole way of being organized on the street is disrupted” but then when they are “dumped back on the streets” they are even “more vulnerable.”

“I think it is a cycle that ends up with more negative consequences,” Sheehy said. “Why can’t we just keep them off the streets?”

Jeff Kositsky, director of the recently created Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said while it was heartbreaking to send people back onto the streets, the reality is there are limited resources. An effective homeless housing system needs to have a “flow,” he said.

“If we allowed everybody to stay in our temporary shelters permanently, we would essentially end up with a street homelessness problem the likes of which the city has not seen since the nineties,” Kositsky said. “This is a heartbreaking and difficult decision that we have to make because we are having to ration resources.”

He said that there are 21,000 homeless persons annually in San Francisco, of which 8,000 are newly homeless. Annually, he said The City is “only helping 2,000 people exit homelessness. That’s a big part of the challenge.” He added, “Even though we have 7,400 units of permanent supportive housing, only 800 units become available in any given year.”

While the beds generally each serve four people a year, without time limits they would each serve “one person for 18 months or longer, he said, adding that “it is good for people get a break from the streets.”

Navigation Centers have several types of beds.

Some beds are for one or two nights stay for those who are sent on buses to places outside the city to stay with friends or family, which is called Homeward Bound. “We just have a few of those beds. Seventeen people a week is our goal,” he said There are about a dozen “emergency beds” for seven day stays were police can bring people.

The largest portion of the beds are limited stays for 60-days But he said if people show they are on a path to housing or entering services they can stay longer. He said an estimated 150 of the total beds in Navigation Centers are “pathway to housing beds” for those with severe disabilities and prioritized for housing slots.

Ronen said she has been arguing with Kositsky about the time limit and may introduce legislation to address it.

She said one of the reasons some homeless in the Mission District, which she represents, refuse to stay in Navigation Centers is because they think there is no point if they will only be out on the street again in 60-days.

“We need to talk about what we need to actually make a difference,” Ronen said, adding that just adding a few beds is “window-dressing.” “It’s not solving the problem,” she said.

Kositsky said for The City to house everyone on the streets would require building 3,000 units of supportive housing nonstop for seven years, which would take $10 billion and 200 development sites.

“I don’t see that we’re going to be building 3,000 units of permanent supportive housing for the next seven years,” Kositsky said. “We have to use what we have as effectively as we possibly can and to develop a system that makes sense. That is exactly what we are trying to do.”

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