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Pitching the Economic Logic for Ending Homelessness in San Francisco

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San Francisco turned the old Civic Center Hotel into its second Navigation Center. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is on a campaign to show that the city’s latest tools to combat homeless — its Navigation Centers — are producing results.

Over the last month, Lee has popped up for photo ops at these new shelters and the supportive housing units that go along with them. Behind the scenes, the city's homeless czar, Sam Dodge, has been gathering data to build the case another way -- with numbers.

I met Dodge at the old Civic Center Hotel on 12th Street at Market. He showed me a small room he thinks will save many people's lives. It was nothing special -- just a well-used hotel room with a new coat of paint.

This hotel has been converted into the city’s second Navigation Center. The first is near the 16th Street BART Station in the Mission, and the city is currently planning a third.

At these new shelters the homeless can come for a few months to sign up for benefits and get on a path to housing. The city is buying up other old hotels to accommodate the homeless coming out of these shelters. “Absent this kind of intensive intervention,” Dodge says, “they are going to die on the street.”

The stakes are high for Dodge, who last October became the director of the city's Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement. The city is spending $241 million a year on homelessness, and Mayor Lee is counting on Dodge to make the Navigation Centers successful and to show voters the city can tackle an issue that has plagued it for decades. Everyone, Dodge says, is watching.

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“This has been an open experiment that a lot of the city has been following in the past year," he says. In order to prove the experiment is working, Dodge is gathering hard data.

The city says it is tracking what happens to every person passing through a Navigation Center. Dodge says 80 percent or so of the clients, about 430 people, have moved into housing or in with family. He says that success rate has helped him convince the city to expand the program.

“This is a way to really tell the story about how we can use supportive housing to solve the homeless crisis,” Dodge says.

Not everyone is convinced. There are still thousands of homeless people in the city. Tent encampments are swelling beneath the freeways. Critics say the Navigation Centers take too long to get people into housing and cost too much to set up.

To make his case, Dodge has to pull out a calculator.

“I end up having to make economic arguments,” he says. “They resonate more than the moral or ethical arguments.” This, he says, is just the sad reality of living in our neoliberal society.

Here is Dodge’s reluctant economic pitch.

The $241 million the city spends on homelessness is only 3 percent of the whole budget, he says, not that much for what he considers to be the city’s biggest issue. Housing, Dodge says, is the cheapest way to deal with the problem. He says out on the street the worst-off homeless cost the city $80,000 per person a year in emergency services. On the other hand, he says it takes only $20,000 a year to shelter and care for a homeless person with supportive housing.

“It's not as if we're not spending money,” Dodge says. “It's just we aren't getting good results for that money.”

Dodge says that even operating optimally, a lot more would have to be spent to really address homelessness. The Navigation Centers will not fix the problem, he says, but he hopes they are enough to make people believe a solution is possible.

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