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Sites where drug users can safely inject or where alcoholics’ consumption is regulated received a warmer than expected endorsement at a hearing Thursday afternoon about progress toward the city’s six Navigation Centers.
While the expansion of navigation centers, like the rest of the city’s budget, is running up against a shortfall the Department of Public Health appears to have warmed to the idea of safe consumption sites.
The idea of helping homeless people who struggle with addiction at supervised sites was written into a city mandate requiring no fewer than six Navigation Centers by mid-2018. The mandate was authored by Supervisor David Campos and approved by the Board of Supervisors, but the proposal met with strong disagreement from the Mayor at the time.
At Thursday’s meeting, Barbara Garcia, the director of the Department of Public Health, expressed support for including such sites or beginning to incorporate supervised consumption into existing harm reduction infrastructure – pending state legislative permission to do so.
“We do believe that that is worth pursuing,” she said in reference to safe consumption sites. “We have a public health responsibility to ensure that these individuals are safe and getting services.”
She estimated to have a real impact, the city would need to establish some six safe injection sites, at a cost of $3 to $3.5 million each.
Federal prohibitions on consumption of controlled substances put city service providers who allow such consumption at risk of law enforcement, said Laura Thomas, who works with the national Drug Policy Alliance.
At the hearing, she explained that the Alliance supported state-level legislation last year that would allow municipalities to permit such sites, but the legislation was rejected in committee. If such legislation is approved on the Alliance’s second attempt to foster it, an effort which would be greatly aided by municipalities showing their support for safe injection sites, San Francisco may move forward.
Campos had called the hearing to check in on the city’s progress in building a total of six of the alternative shelters following concerns that a shortage of shelter beds has slowed down the process of clearing out homeless encampments around the city.
“What keeps me up at night is the fact that, as we’re trying to resolve encampments we’re running out of beds, places to send people, so what are we going to do?” Campos wanted to know.
San Francisco has some 1,300 shelter beds, but anywhere between 6,600 and 10,000 homeless people, not all of whom necessarily live on the streets. There are about 900 people on the waitlist to enter the city’s shelter system.
Jeff Kositsky, who heads the city’s Department of Homelessness, said the legislation requiring new Navigation Centers would not alleviate the need entirely but is a start.
“It’s great to have wind at our backs in terms of that at least we know we’re going to add another 500 to 600 beds based on this legislation,” he said. “It is less than what we need, but it is an important start.”