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Monday, July 11, 2016

A New Strategy to Reduce Homelessness

A number of strategies to address homelessness have been debated and attempted in cities across the nation. These have included everything from criminalizing homelessness to legalizing homeless encampments, and from building tiny house villages to implementing aggressive street outreach and housing first placement.

San Francisco has been breaking ground on a uniquely new strategy called the "Navigation Center". This is a one-stop complex where homeless individuals are welcomed for short stays without placing barriers to their entry. The approach is welcoming and accommodating, which creates an atmosphere of trust that helps people change their living situation. The goal is to warm people up to accessing housing and services, which is often an obstacle to helping them off the streets, especially for chronically homeless individuals with substance abuse and/or mental health issues. During stays, homeless individuals are assisted through proactive one-on-one interaction with case managers and counselors who identify appropriate supportive housing and help them move in.

This model has already demonstrated success in moving people off the streets, and it will be formalized within a new City Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and supported by new City funding targeted to producing new supportive housing units. The first Navigation Center was established in the Mission about a year ago and offers 75 beds. The Mission Navigation Center had served 468 individuals as of early May of this year. About 84% of those individuals served had moved into permanent housing. A second Navigation Center opened in a renovated hotel in Civic Center that will offer 93 beds.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has plans to develop three more Navigation Centers. These centers will be the organizing force for a completely redesigned homeless services system. One of the aims is to attract people out of homeless camps that are often dangerous, unhealthy, and have negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. The key to making the centers successful is producing an adequate number of affordable housing units that will provide permanent destinations for visitors. San Francisco has made some progress in that regard by using bond financing to generate $810 million for affordable housing last year. Part of the bond financing was approved through a proposition last November with 75% of voters favoring the measure.

Most cities don't have the political will right now to implement a similar program in type or scale to San Francisco. However, if it becomes a successful model that can show public cost savings to taxpayers, then the Navigation Center approach may become replicable elsewhere. It is now well documented that placing a homeless individual in subsidized supportive housing is generally much less expensive than leaving that individual on the streets in terms of public costs. Further, these studies typically do not consider the broader positive impacts to the local economy. I will be tracking the success of San Francisco's Navigation Centers to see how this strategy might demonstrate a solution to the problem of homelessness on a large scale.