The city’s first Navigation Center for the homeless has changed its operating model to limit stays to one month and the centers no longer promise placement in permanent housing.

Randy Quezada, communications manager at the San Francisco Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, confirmed that the center now operates as a 30-day triage center to funnel clients into city services, including the shelter system.

No longer are officials making promises of permanent housing placements – its original goal.

“The original incarnation was that once retained, people would stay there [at the Navigation Center] until housed,” said Quezada.

He said his department is now working to grant more people equitable access to the city’s resources and services rather than focusing on those admitted to a Navigation Center.

”The model switched so we have more opportunity with other people – because we have far more need than resources,” Quezada said.

In recent months, preference for the Navigation Center was given to residents of tent encampments who were relocated in a citywide push to dismantle makeshift shelters on city sidewalks. Many of those encampments were located in the Mission.

Service providers began to complain that this was unfair, said Quezada. “In the legislation that created [the Navigation Center] there was a directive for equitable housing in the system,” he said, adding that the change reflects an effort by his department to be “mindful” of that directive.

The Navigation Center opened at 1950 Mission St. in March 2015 and was praised for its innovative approach in helping clients transition off the streets and into housing using a rigorous onsite case-management program.

It also lessened the barrier to admittance, allowing clients to bring their partners, pets, and most of their possessions.

In the fall, the Navigation Center became part of a formula to house those relocated from large tent encampments, essentially excluding chronically homeless individuals and others who met the center’s criteria but were not living in encampments.

“[Priority] shouldn’t be location-based,” said Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, supports the general move towards a more equitable entry system. “There were others in greater need who should have gotten priority,” said Friedenbach.

Before the recent change, residents at 1950 Mission St. remained until they were connected to supportive housing, returned home or decided to leave on their own. More than half of the homeless people who were processed through the Navigation Center and considered successful exits opted to take the free ticket home.

Mission Local reporters met clients during a December tour whose residencies ranged from four months to more than a year. Those who were already in the center at the time of the policy change in September are grandfathered in and allowed to stay longer.

According to a June 2016 evaluation by the City Controller’s office, those going back to the streets had, on average, a shorter stay (61 days) – than those who exited successfully (88 days) to a more permanent living situation.

Ryan Hunter, a performance analyst who worked on the report, said that while data shows that 30 days was not enough to get the chronically homeless housed, it may be long enough to evaluate client needs, get people connected with relatives, and “maybe help less complex clients get into permanent supportive housing.”

It was the promise of permanent housing that made the Navigation Center attractive for many of the homeless who entered, but it was also somewhat of a mirage. There are few vacancies – about 400 each year – in the 6,000 units set aside for the homeless and not nearly enough for the some 6,700 homeless residents.

Securing housing for the unhoused is still the goal, said Quezada, but with limited resources, the “key criteria for permanent housing is chronic homelessness.”

Quezada said once a homeless resident has spent 30 days at the Navigation Center without being placed elsewhere, they will be given the option to transfer to a 90-day city shelters. Those who refuse will likely go back to the streets.

Even finding shelter beds is difficult.

With torrential winter rains, the waitlist for the 1,203 emergency city shelter beds surpassed 1,000 people in December, and hovered at 999 in mid-January.

Quezada said that a stay at the Navigation Center aligns with the average time it takes to move from the waitlist into a shelter – about 30 days. Clients are signed up for the city shelter list as part of the “onboarding” process at the Navigation Center.

“For some people this will be a step to connect them to services, but they may choose to go back to the street,” said Quezada about the Navigation Center’s new policy, adding that the triage structure will not apply to the newer Navigation Centers.

A second center opened at the Civic Center Hotel on 12th Street in June, and more are in the pipeline for construction throughout the city.

Still, advocates for the homeless take issue with the policy change at 1950 Mission St. because they say chances of Navigation Center clients – for whom traditional shelters usually aren’t a good fit in the first place – cycling through the system, are high.

“[Thirty days] is not a realistic amount of time to stabilize people, nor enough time to secure housing or other critical services and benefits,” said Friedenbach, of the Coalition.

Friedenbach said it often means a return to the street and gives “the false appearance of movement on homelessness.”

In reality, she added, it’s “just cycling folks from streets to Navigation Center and back to streets again.”

Designed to house those most difficult to serve, the center’s promise of navigating the homeless off the streets and into supportive housing initially was a crucial component of the center’s plan to help its clients exit homelessness permanently.

“Its why its been such a golden ticket,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition. “What made it such a popular thing [was] that the exit was housing.”

But with not enough rooms to go around, the Navigation Center´s new policy makes it ¨primarily a shelter or 30 days,¨ said Laura Guzman, director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, which helps manage the Navigation Center.

“I think its a problem, because we don’t have any longer the time and the housing units that it takes to house people,¨she said.

Cutler said that the city’s ongoing efforts to move people out of their tents without the offer of more stable and permanent housing, can be “traumatizing” and called the 30-days “a band-aid.”