SF’s top health, homeless officials endorse wet housing, safe drug injection sites

San Francisco’s top health and homeless officials Thursday publicly endorsed the creation of safe injection sites for drug users and wet housing for alcoholics.

The support from Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and Barbara Garcia, director of the Department of Public Health, is a major boost for homeless advocates who have called on elected officials to try new methods while steering The City away from efforts that instead focus on criminalization.

The support also comes as The City has plans this fiscal year to open two more Navigation Centers, a new type of homeless shelter with relaxed rules.

While there are multiple steps for The City to take before these programs become a reality — a safe injection site, for example, would require a state law change — it marks a significant change in the political discourse.

SEE RELATED: Mayor Ed Lee faces criticism for opposing supervised injection facilities

Just last June, Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission District with a large number of homeless encampments, introduced legislation requiring the creation of six Navigation Centers and the inclusion of both wet housing and safe injection sites. But safe injection sites and wet housing were stripped from the proposal before it could pass the board.

Now, based on Garcia’s comments, Campos told the San Francisco Examiner: “My hope is that sometime next year that we will see the opening of such a site.”

Part of the shift in attitude has to do with the increasing number of homeless people.

Since 2010, the nation’s homeless population has decreased overall by 14 percent, while San Francisco’s homeless population has increased from 5,823 in 2010 to 6,996 this year.

Matthew Doherty, executive director of U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, recently said that the rise in homelessness in West Coast cities is attributed to the hot real estate market as well as the opioid epidemic.

SEE RELATED: Nationwide homeless population drops, while SF sees increase

As The City moves to both reduce the number of encampments on the streets as well as the overall homeless population, it all comes down to the number of available beds. There are about 3,500 people who live on the streets, according to city officials, and just 1,300 shelter beds.

San Francisco’s fourth Navigation Center is expected to open in mid-2017 at 520 Jessie St., which is currently housed by The Salvation Army. The City is obligated to open six Navigation Centers in two years, under legislation from Supervisor David Campos. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco’s fourth Navigation Center is expected to open in mid-2017 at 520 Jessie St., which is currently housed by The Salvation Army. The City is obligated to open six Navigation Centers in two years, under legislation from Supervisor David Campos. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Navigation Centers
Navigation Centers are increasing The City’s supply of shelter beds. In March 2015, San Francisco opened its first Navigation Center with 75 beds at 1950 Mission St. It is expected to stay open until at least the summer of 2017.

The second Navigation Center to open earlier this year was the 93-room Civic Center Hotel, which is considered the first of the six required under Campos’ legislation.

A third site is slated to open in the Dogpatch neighborhood in February.

A fourth, the third under the mandated six, is expected to open in mid-2017 at 520 Jessie St., which is currently owned by The Salvation Army.

Even with the planned openings, Campos emphasized the lack of available shelter.

“We are running out of beds, places to send people,” he said during Thursday’s Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing.

Kositsky agreed. “What keeps us from moving faster, what keeps us from doing more is the lack of shelter beds,” he said, noting that he is currently studying “what’s the optimal number of shelter beds that we need in the city” and a plan for how to create them.

Doherty recently praised the leadership of Los Angeles’ mayor and board of supervisors for their success in passing last month a $1.2 billion voter-approved bond to house the homeless.

As for the creation of additional Navigation Centers in San Francisco, those plans are on hold after voters this November rejected a sales tax increase that would have funded more sites and other homeless services.

SEE RELATED: Balancing SF budget could come at cost of free City College

“We currently do not have plans for fiscal year [20]17-18,” Kositsky said. “We are currently on hold, pending some budget discussions.”

The mayor is issuing budget instructions to city departments next week for the upcoming fiscal year and plans to issue a budget revise for the current fiscal year due to the loss of the assumed sales tax revenue.

Navigation Centers cost about $3 million to operate annually.

Proposition Q
While voters rejected the sales tax hike for homeless, they did approve Proposition Q, which explicitly bans homeless encampments on sidewalks and authorizes The City to remove them within 24 hours if it offers them housing or bus tickets to housing outside of San Francisco.

SEE RELATED: Prop. Q divides SF over how to address homelessness

Kositsky said Prop. Q will have no impact for how his department has been addressing homeless encampments, which he described as a patient and compassionate approach that may also include providing showers and bathrooms.

“Prop. Q may be a tool that police choose to use, but as far as we move forward, we will continue with what I think has been a successful strategy,” Kositsky said.

Safe injection sites
Kositsky said Navigation Centers aren’t the right fit for ideas like wet housing or safe injection centers, but he said wet housing, in general, is a good idea.

“We do, however, believe that alcohol management program in a permanent supportive housing site is an excellent idea,” Kositsky said. “We do believe that is worth pursuing.”

Meanwhile, Garcia said “we do not oppose injection sites” and would open them if some of the barriers are removed, like legal issues and funding as well support from neighborhoods.

Garcia said she would work with the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for these facilities nationally, on the group’s second attempt to pass in Sacramento a bill to provide legal protections for cities who open such facilities. An attempt by the group failed last year.

Garcia said it would cost The City between $3 million and $3.5 million per site and that she would recommend at least six sites.

There are an estimated 17,000 intravenous drug users in San Francisco.

“We know that in many of our public locations, people are shooting up drugs. We know in the bathroom at 101 Grove [St.] people come into shoot drugs,” said Garcia, referring to the DPH address in the Civic Center area. “We just have to acknowledge that publicly. We do have to find resources and locations for people to be safe in those needs.”

Mayor Ed Lee was quick to oppose the idea of safe injection sites earlier this year when Campos proposed it.

Since then, a task force for the mayor of Seattle has recommended safe injection sites that would be the first to open in the nation.

The Examiner previously reported that there is an ongoing conversation among nonprofit workers and residents in the Tenderloin about opening a safe injection site in that community.

SEE RELATED: Tenderloin health efforts break from tradition as support for supervised injection sites grows

The mayor’s spokesperson Deirdre Hussey said Thursday that “there are many issues with this, the main issue being it is currently illegal under state and federal law.”

She added, “[Mayor Lee] has great respect in [Garcia’s] ability to find creative solutions that serve the entire community and he looks forward to working with her on this.”

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