City Grapples with Rising Homelessness

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This year’s Point-In-Time (PIT) census identified 8,011 individuals without permanent shelter in San Francisco, a 17 percent jump from the 2017 PIT, the last time the survey was conducted. The 2019 PIT count found 1,889 people experiencing homelessness in District 10, the City’s second highest level of rootlessness, after District 6.  Just 455 shelter beds are located in District 10.

The number of people who are unsheltered on the Southside fluctuates, as people enter Navigation Centers, receive housing, leave the area, or depart the City, said Sam Lew, policy director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

According to Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of strategy and external affairs for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), the Department plans to expand the number of temporary accommodations and intensify its focus on prevention and diversion, also known as “problem-solving. We can help people resolve the crisis of homelessness quickly,” said Stewart-Kahn.  “California is experiencing a homelessness crisis. In San Francisco, for every person we help exit from homelessness, three take their place. We are not going to be able to solve this problem on our own. We need to advocate for the homeless on a national level. On a local level, we need to build more shelters and more exits from homelessness.” 

Stewart-Kahn said the City is advancing efforts to serve the seven percent of people the PIT count identified as living in vehicles. HSH formed a Vehicle Encampment Resolution Team as part of the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which works with highly vulnerable people living in their vehicles. HSH plans to house 33 vehicles in its pilot Vehicle Triage Center, located at 2340 San Jose Avenue. The facility will offer restrooms, showers, laundry facilities, a kitchen, and eating areas, along with security and office space for onsite services. Residents will be allowed to stay up to 90 days, with a possible extension at the site director’s discretion. 

Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to enable the program to proceed. HSH expects the facility to open in November. The area will ultimately be developed as Balboa Upper Yards, a 138-unit affordable housing complex, with construction slated to begin next October. 

The Central Waterfront Navigation Center (CWNC), a 64-bed facility located at 600 25th Street, is a “really bright spot,” said Stewart-Kahn. “The community has embraced the Navigation Center. The Dogpatch Neighborhood Association asked us to extend our lease because it has been successful and has had a positive impact in the community.” 

CWNC started offering services in 2017. It’s operated by Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco (ECS), a nonprofit organization with origins that date to the Mission of the Good Samaritan on Second Street. 

Over the past two years, HSH’s Encampment Resolution Team (ERT) has grappled with tent and tarp encampments, while HOT has engaged with people living on the streets or in their vehicles. Between 2016 and 2019, HSH “resolved” 72 encampments by providing intensive outreach services and offering shelter spots. 

Stewart-Kahn said that in the past two years approximately 60 percent of people living in encampments accepted temporary placements, including at Navigation Centers and shelters. “If residents have concerns, they can call 311. Coming inside to shelter or housing is voluntary. Our success is measured by the engagement and trust built by our Homeless Outreach Team. People have to want to come inside. There needs to be spaces for them to do so,” said Stewart-Kahn.

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton said one of his goals is for everyone in the District to have access to the social services and housing they need. “In Bayview, there are people living in their vehicles all along the side streets that cross Thomas Avenue, including Ingalls Street, Jennings Street, and down Evans Street. I think the population is combined of people who have been unsheltered in San Francisco and dislocated from other areas. As soon as Berkeley passed a ban on overnight street parking in recreational vehicles, we saw the number of RVs in this area increase,” said Walton. 

Walton wants more funding for mental health and substance abuse recovery services and repair assistance for people living in vehicles.  “Proposition C is held up by court cases, so we can use resources from the General Fund. We can’t wait when it comes to homelessness. I’d like to see an increase in the number of staff in the Homeless Outreach Team,” said Walton. 

According to J.R. Eppler, Potrero Boosters president, residents are pleased that encampments located on San Bruno Avenue and Potrero Hill’s northwest corner have been removed. “Concerns…have decreased in the past two years. It has been a lot quieter,” said Eppler, who commented that he’d like to see construction of safe, secure housing units for people without shelter.  

“Any available location in the City is a good one, particularly CalTrans land which is currently being used to store cars. We need to distribute such housing around the City. It may make sense to pursue a temporary housing alternative so the scope of the housing can be flexible and adjust to the needs of the homeless population,” said Eppler.

Keith Goldstein, Potrero-Dogpatch Merchants Association president, said local businesses believe that HSH has taken considerable steps to improve conditions on 16th Street, Folsom Street, South Van Ness Avenue, and Showplace Square. “The City has been very responsive to calls from merchants about homeless encampments. Many of us support a second Navigation Center,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein said businesses aren’t particularly worried about people living in their vehicles taking up parking for customers and store employees. “Businesses are more concerned about commuters taking up the parking. A number are interested in having parking controls,” said Goldstein.

The Bayshore Navigation Center, a 128-bed facility located at 125 Bayshore Boulevard, opened in 2018.  It’s operated by Five Keys, a nonprofit organization that also manages charter schools and workforce development and re-entry programs for young adults. Both it and CWNC are run under contract with HSH. 

Lew said there’s a concern that people are simply “rotating” in and out of Navigation Centers, without resolving their underlying housing challenges. “Most people are only able to stay in a Navigation Center for 30 to 60 days. The City addresses homelessness on a complaint-driven basis, using them to sweep encampments,” said Lew. “It’s not cost-effective and not a solution.” 

According to John Warner, CWNC associate director, a typical stay at a Navigation Center is about two months.  “A guest can stay 60 days at a Navigation Center with the possibility of getting extensions. They can stay longer based on personal needs. There are also ‘pathway beds,’ where a guest can stay until they receive housing. The guest has to comply with needs and goals they’ve set,” said Warner. 

Warner said some individuals return to a Navigation Center multiple times.   Those who leave a facility can reappear as long as they haven’t violated rules regarding violent behavior.  He thought that Central Waterfront Navigation Center residents make progress partly because the facility is half the size of a typical shelter.  

“For someone who hasn’t lived inside in a long time, trusting others and sleeping indoors can be a challenge. If someone’s on the fence, we let them come by. We give them a tour and let them know their rights. That’s often enough to calm their nerves,” said Warner.

Navigation Centers offer free meals and an on-site health clinic.  Lodgers can come and go without a curfew. “They are also allowed to keep pets, including dogs, cats, and rabbits. The animals have to be safe around people,” said Warner. 

Residents are assigned case managers when they enter the Navigation Center. “Their case manager connects them with benefits and can take them to medical, housing, and legal appointments,” said Warner.

Amar Al Hosani, ECS volunteer and events coordinator, encouraged individuals who live and work in the neighborhood to connect with Navigation Center guests.  “About 2,500 volunteers throughout the City volunteer with ECS. They come as individuals, in groups, as part of company-wide volunteer efforts. On the Southside, about five to 10 Invitae employees volunteer every month for Game Night, where volunteers set up and play games with Center guests,” said Al Hosani. Helpers also cook and serve meals, organize shelter libraries, and run movement classes, like yoga. 

Jerry Metzker, ECS associate director of development, said volunteers bring “a dedication to serving others in the community and connecting with them. Their involvement shows that we’re all neighbors and part of the same community.” 

Bart Ney, California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) spokesperson, said the agency has partnered with the City to offer up to 20 jobs for people that complete training. 

Between 2011 and 2018, CalTrans removed 16,000 illegal encampments across the state, at a cost of $38 million. 

“We are now working with the City to provide spaces in our right of way for local programs that help the unsheltered. We’re charging the City $1 for access to these areas. So far, we have a tent-like structure at 13th Street and Division Circle and a modular structure at Fifth Street and Bryant Street. We hope to establish another structure at Selby Street and Evan Street. In some cases, such as at Progress Park, where a garden was established, our maintenance teams have found ways to make adjacent areas more hospitable,” said Ney.

According to Stewart-Kahn people experiencing homelessness historically lived on the Southside because it was less populated.  “As it has developed, there are fewer places for people without shelter to be “unseen.” Our approach is about meeting individuals where they are. We want to lead with compassion and services to help people come inside,” said Stewart-Kahn.