SF Must Join Navigation Center With Street Outreach

by on January 26, 2015

The site of the new Navigation Center, 1950 Mission St.

As Kevin Fagan described in the January 24 San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco is opening a Navigation Center on Mission Street to reduce camping in nearby areas. The facility addresses the biggest challenge in reducing street homelessness, and should reduce the numbers of those living under freeways in the city. Those unsympathetic to the population to be served should recognize that the status quo of offering no alternative to those living in encampments is a lose-lose for everyone.

The Navigation Center is a big step forward. But its opening does not solve the ongoing failure of the city’s homeless street outreach system. This failure will now be compounded if what little outreach does occur is limited to the areas surrounding the Navigation Center.

The Department of Public Health runs the city’s homeless outreach, and in the current budget was given millions of dollars in new funding. Yet there are no visible results to show for these funds.

It’s no coincidence that  the visionary navigation center was pushed by Bevan Dufty and Sam Dodge of the Mayor’s Office; if left to DPH, it never would have happened.

No Accountability for DPH

DPH’s inadequate homeless outreach has been evident for some time. After an October 2013 Union Square survey of panhandlers showed DPH outreach efforts were failing to reach this population, many wondered what exactly DPH was doing with its outreach funds. We knew that the agency was spending millions paying landlords for rundown housing in its notorious “stabilization” program. We also knew that demand exceeded available resources, so the thought was that DPH needed more resources to handle the increased numbers on the streets.

So led by Supervisor Mark Farrell, in March 2014 the Board of Supervisors gave DPH a $1.3 million supplemental appropriation to expand homeless outreach services. The money was supposed to bolster services in Mid-Market Street and the Tenderloin, where people who need assistance are too often left to fend for themselves.

Yet nearly one year later, there has been no increased in DPH outreach services to either neighborhood. And if such services have increased, they are not visible to those living and working nearby.

What happened to the money? Was the Mayor and Board’s desire for increased homeless outreach simply ignored?

Well, as I reported last August, DPH took the budget supplemental and then decided not to spend it. Instead, it suspended its homeless outreach program for the balance of the year.

DPH acted without prior consultation with Supervisor Farrell or the mayor’s office. DPH sought to use the down time to redesign its outreach program and obtain a new contractor to perform the service. But new contractors are sought through bidding processes all the time in San Francisco, and this is the first I have heard of this process requiring the suspension of a vital service while a bidding process and program redesign is underway.

At the hearing on the DPH supplemental last March, Supervisor and now Board President London Breed questioned whether San Francisco was getting the best results for its homeless dollars. This might be a good time for Supervisor Breed to hold a hearing on how the DPH outreach funds are being spent, and why we have seen no increased services in Mid-Market or the Tenderloin.

The Supervisors have a hands off attitude toward DPH that is hard to understand given the agency’s poor performance on spending homeless outreach dollars.

Spreading Homeless Services

The Supervisors also might want to hold a hearing on the distribution of homeless housing and services. Locating the Navigation Center in the Mission (between 15th and 16th streets) made sense because of the many encampments in the nearby area. But if San Francisco wants to continue to expand homeless housing and services, it is going to have to spread both to areas outside the Mission, SOMA and Tenderloin.

That’s not going to be easy. Other neighborhoods, including Bayview, have seen opposition to new shelters and homeless housing programs. While city officials have long talked of all neighborhoods “doing their share” to address homelessness, I don’t see the Sunset, Richmond, Marina, Pacific Heights, North Beach, Noe Valley to name just a few neighborhoods that house few if any homeless services.

There are many SROs in North Beach and yet the area has no master leased hotels for the formerly homeless. To change this, the city will have to do what it recently did to house homeless veterans at the Stanford Hotel at 250 Kearney, which is to pay owners a much higher lease rate to reflect more affluent neighborhoods.

In the big picture, the Navigation Center is a breakthrough for San Francisco. If coupled with effective homeless outreach and the spreading of homeless services citywide, San Francisco  will be able to say that it has done everything in its power to address the national scourge of homelessness.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which master leases hotels for the formerly homeless.

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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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