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What B.C. can learn from San Francisco as it builds 'enhanced' homeless shelters

FILE - Tents in a homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver on Sept. 6, 2019. (Lasia Kretzel, NEWS 1130 Photo)

B.C. NDP promise to build two 60-bed navigation centres

San Francisco opened its first navigation centre in 2015 and has opened more since, with some success

Coun. Jean Swanson says shelters manage homelessness but don't end it

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A homeless advocate who helped pioneer “enhanced” shelters for homeless people in San Francisco has advice for British Columbia as it looks to follow in her city’s footsteps.

The BC NDP government announced this week that it planned to build two 60-bed “navigation centres.”

The centres will resemble typical homeless shelters – including open sleeping areas with multiple beds – but will also include medical services and resources to help people find permanent housing, said Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson.

The province has promised to build 200 units of supportive modular housing this year, but the navigation centres will provide a temporary solution while those homes are under construction.

“In the interim, we still have people on our streets, in our ravines (and) on sidewalks,” she said. “We want to make sure we can provide them with the support and the navigation centres are part of that solution,” she said.

It’s not yet clear where the two navigation centres will be built. Robinson said the province is currently in the planning stages, including looking for suitable places to build them.

B.C. following San Francisco’s lead

B.C. ‘s navigation centres will resemble several built in San Francisco, starting in 2015.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Housing, says her organization helped build the first one in San Francisco.

She said navigation centres typically have fewer restrictions than traditional shelters. For example, San Francisco centres allow guests to bring pets, sleep with their partners and bring more of their belongings.

They also provide more freedom to their guests by allowing guests to come and go when they please, Friedenbach said.

“The idea was to get rid of some of the barriers that prevent unsheltered people from being able to access shelter.”

Don’t let police place people: advocate

Friedenbach said B.C. can learn some lessons from San Francisco’s experiences.

One of the “big mistakes” officials made there was giving police the primary role in choosing who stays in the centres, she said.

“That has, of course, been unsuccessful,” because people can grow to resent being told where to sleep by someone “with a gun in their holster,” Friedenbach said.

She said it would be better to allow community groups to facilitate placement.

‘My first reaction was a sigh’

Despite significant successes, navigation centres have by no means solved homelessness in the Bay Area.

While the centres have helped some San Franciscans transition to permanent housing and have helped “alleviate the trauma and lack of sleep that people face out on the street,” homelessness is still on the rise in the foggy city, she said.

According to Friedenbach, 21,000 people per year experience homelessness in San Francisco – and that number has jumped 30 per cent over the last two years.

She said the main cause of homelessness remains unsolved: a lack of permanent affordable housing.

Coun. Jean Swanson, a veteran Vancouver anti-poverty activist elected on a platform largely focused on housing affordability, said she had mixed feelings when she first heard about the navigation centres.

“My first reaction was a sigh,” she said, “because it kind of means that they’re not going to actually try and end homelessness – they’re just going to try and manage it.”

But as long as there are homeless people, Swanson said, it’s good for them to have somewhere to go.

Swanson said she was disappointed to see the province only commit to building 200 temporary modular housing units this year while there are still 7,000 homeless people in B.C.

With files from Liza Yuzda