SF’s Homeless Amnesia

by on March 28, 2016

Campos pushes SF to return to failed "Shelter First" strategy

Campos Forgets What Works, Promotes Shelters Over Housing

“The department would represent the most significant effort to end homelessness since then-Mayor Gavin Newsom created his 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2004.”—SF Chronicle, December 3, 2015, responding to Mayor Lee’s announcement of a new Department of Homelessness.

A renewed sense of urgency at City Hall is overdue”—SF Chronicle, March 24, 2015, forgetting about the sense of urgency it found three months earlier.

Selective amnesia has set in around San Francisco homeless policy. Despite Mayor Lee announcing in December what the SF Chronicle called the most significant effort to end homelessness since 2004, David Campos claims that it was because of his recent criticisms that Lee began prioritizing homelessness.

The facts contradict Campos. But what spurred Mayor Lee to action is not the amnesia that troubles me. Rather, its Campos’ pushing for  six additional Navigation Centers without assessing whether vastly expanding the city’s shelter system is the best use of funds.

We have thirty years of experience in San Francisco to know that it is not. Yet Campos has either forgotten or is ignoring that Housing First is superior to Shelter First. His approach would cost San Francisco tens of millions of dollars without a single exit from homelessness to show for it.

Division Street Fallout

Let’s start with the real history of efforts to add Navigation Centers.

Sam Dodge, Mayor Lee’s point person on homelessness, had been seeking a second Navigation Center for months when the citywide furor emerged over the mayor’s tardy response to the camping crisis on Division Street.  It’s not easy to find adequate sites for new homeless services, and prime locations fell through after the city had invested time making them happen.

Campos learned this reality when he sent a list of 36 potential sites to the mayor, none of which proved viable. Campos could have found the second Navigation Center site by using connections in his home neighborhood, but the San Francisco Chronicle ran a revealing story noting how he was careful to exclude any Bernal Heights sites on his long list (the story also quoted Supervisor Norman Yee saying he opposed any new homeless services in his district while he supported a resolution to declare a homeless “emergency”).

I detailed this hypocrisy (“SF’s Homeless “Emergency’’) last week. I recognized that the political benefits of supervisors being able to say they “did something” on homelessness by passing a resolution that brought no new services that constituents might oppose.

No wonder the Campos resolution to declare a homeless emergency has a veto-proof Board majority.  Any supervisor claiming the problem is not a crisis appears out of touch. The resolution will not result in a single new housing unit or shelter space for the poor, but its political value to supervisors is high.

Ironically, D6 Supervisor Jane Kim, long supportive of homeless services,  has been accused of Campos and Yee type hypocrisy by demanding public input on placing the second Navigation Center in the Civic Center Hotel in her district. These charges are wrong. Kim took a courageous stand by insisting her residents get the same rights of public input as would be accorded other districts. Bernal Heights  or West Portal residents should also get a community meeting on proposed new homeless services if Campos or Yee allow any new programs in these neighborhoods.

Navigation Centers=Shelters

I strongly supported the first Navigation Center on 1950 Mission, calling it a “big step forward.” San Francisco needed a shelter that could get those camping with dogs and in couples off the street, and the Center addressed that need.

Former city homeless coordinator Bevan Dufty was very clever in branding the new facility as a “Navigation Center” rather than a shelter. The public would not be excited about a new shelter. The Navigation Center was distinctive because it was designed to attract those camping under highway whose pets and relationships kept them away from existing shelters.

Because the public was happy to see an alternative to camping,  most paid little attention to the steep cost of the Navigation Center—-$35,000 per slot. That cost is much higher than the cost of permanent housing for a formerly homeless person in a master leased hotel. Such housing, unlike the Center, is an exit from homelessness.

It costs more for San Francisco to shelter someone than to provide a home. That’s why San Francisco adopted the “Housing First” strategy Campos now seeks to replace with a Shelter First approach.

Navigation Centers are still just shelters. They get people off the streets, but people living in shelters are still homeless. Navigation Centers are not an exit from homelessness.

The rebranding of large shelters as “Navigation Centers” harkens back to Art Agnos’ diverting millions in 1990 from permanent housing to two new cleverly named “Multi-Service Centers” in the North and South of Market. These weren’t branded as “shelters” either. Instead they were marketed as providing the “one stop shop” for homeless services that would quickly get homeless people back in housing.

That didn’t happen for some people then and it won’t happen now. The reason is a lack of housing those in shelters can afford. You can provide the best services to people but if they cannot afford housing in San Francisco they remain homeless.

San Francisco has spent millions for years on these Multi-Service Centers. Has David Campos evaluated or even asked about their effectiveness before pushing his six Navigation Center plan? If so it has not been publicized. Has Campos asked why the average stay in the Navigation Center is 85 days despite all of the services available? The answer might well be a lack of available housing.

This gap in exits should be considered before a politician aggressively pushes for six more Centers. Because if it takes three months to house people now, adding more shelters rather than more housing makes no sense.

Unfortunately, Campos is not interested in these practical details. It’s all politics and media coverage. He wants six new Centers without examining how they will reduce homelessness.  He is so focused on getting credit for “forcing the mayor to act” that he pays no attention to how public homeless dollars are best spent.

Convert Shelters to Navigation Centers

If San Francisco’s current shelter system is not effectively responding to the needs of those on the streets, then they should be retooled. Adding more large shelters by calling them Navigation Centers does not change the core reality that people are homeless because they cannot afford rent.

The Civic Center Hotel project makes sense because its converting a transitional facility into a Navigation Center. It avoids the million dollar capital cost otherwise needed to create new large shelters.

If our Multi-Service Centers or other shelters are not meeting current needs of those on the streets, then retool them. But let’s not commit tens of millions of dollars to erect a vast shelter system under any name when we know that only permanent housing gets people out of homelessness.

San Francisco has a major homeless problem because it lacks sufficient affordable housing to meet demand, not because of a lack of shelters. No amount of selective amnesia will change that fact.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes the origins of San Francisco’s homeless crisis in The Activist’s Handbook

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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