Seattle not quite following San Francisco's lead on handling the street homeless

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Tuesday, September 24th 2019
Matt Markovich, KOMO News

SAN FRANCISCO -- Seattle got the idea for its one and only Navigation Center from San Francisco, so why hasn't Seattle hasn't created more comprehensive facilities to help the homeless if San Francisco is calling them a success?

At San Francisco' Bayshore Navigation Center, they handle the street homeless differently.

"We want to promote positiveness, (but up to) holistic healing, so we try to surround everyone with that," says Tony Chase, Assistant Director of the Bayshore Navigation Center.

There's art, flowers and pets.

"Art is great therapy," Chase says. "We decided that plants are very healing, nurturing to the soul."

It's also where 128 people with issues ranging from substance abuse to mental health to disabilities to acute homelessness, all sleep together in one big dorm room -- men and women, couples and pets.

"With all the issues that one can have, how does anybody stay sane?" I asked Chase.

"People really enjoy being here," he replied. "It's a low stress environment."

It's not the tough love approach that critics of San Francisco's homeless policies say is needed. Only 14% move into permanent housing from the Navigation Centers. But the centers have become popular with city lawmakers because they offer onsite behavior health, substance abuse treatment, help with finding a job and a path to housing -- all in one spot.

About 3.5 years ago, then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray toured San Francisco's first - and at that time - only navigation center.

"We can get a handle on this problem," Murray said back then.

Sixteen months later, Seattle opened its own Navigation Center. But it remains the only one, while San Francisco now has six with a seventh on the way.

"There's no pressure on anybody where they have to get out of here at any time," Chase said.

And that philosophy differs from Seattle, where homeless service providers are pushed hard to get people into housing or face penalties.

Seattle has "Enhanced Shelters" -- quasi-Navigation centers without the full-time onsite services San Francisco's Navigation Centers. That idea is creating hundreds of shelter beds and 10 tiny house villages where people can stay for extended periods of time without having to leave every night.

But there's a new $4 million plan to convert an unused floor of the King County Jail into a 60-bed shelter with full time Navigational Center-type services.

"This new shelter is specifically designed for those individuals that we have not been able to reach but are cycling through the system," says current Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

But it's unknown if it will include art, flowers and a stress-free environment.

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