The much ballyhooed vision of San Francisco's pioneering Navigation Centers for the homeless — which were originally touted as allowing people to stay for indefinite periods in a non-traditional shelter setting until they could navigate their way toward permanent, or at least semi-permanent housing — may in fact be returning a lot of people to the streets much sooner than the city has previously revealed. The San Francisco Public Press has just done their own investigation into the true numbers, and it looks like nearly half — about 45 percent — have just been given free bus tickets out of town to family or friends who agree to take them in under the city's Homeward Bound program.

The program, similar to those in multiple other cities and begun under Mayor Gavin Newsom, is a potentially effective tool for some who end up homeless. SFist noted in a 2014 report that 8,000 out of the 19,000 homeless people that the mayor touted as having been taken off the streets through city efforts over the previous decade had just been given tickets home — though the problem, because no comprehensive database of homeless individuals exists, is tracking how soon some of these people have returned to the streets of SF. The Public Press finds that, anecdotally at least, a number of homeless people have taken advantage of the program just for free travel.

Perhaps more problematically, however, is the fact that the Navigation Centers now put a 60-day cap on individual stays, up from 30 days a few months ago — the lower cap being put in place by new homeless point-person Jeff Kositsky in recognition of the vast need and limited slots available at the two existing navigation centers at the time. As the Public Press notes, speaking to homeless people who are frustrated with the program and the time limit after being promised placement in housing, this is making it harder to get people in encampments to agree to move into the Navigation Centers with the incentive being so low.

In theory, the Navigation Centers — of which there are now three, with a fourth expected to open soon at the edge of the Mission — are supposed to provide temporary housing for entire encampments or homeless friend groups, pets and all, with none of the curfews associated with regular shelters, and allowing people to safely store their belongings, all while providing them with counseling and rehab services, and a potential path to more permanent housing.

The city has touted that 72 percent of everyone who moved through the Navigation Centers as of January 2017, or about 830 people, had been "housed," however when the Public Press pulls out the number who were given bus tickets, that number drops to under 25 percent as of recent months, as far as placements in long-term supportive housing. Between September 2016 and April of the year, some 232 people left Navigation Centers with no housing placements at all.

The Examiner looked into this same issue surrounding Navigation Centers, and the tricky use of the word "housed," in a piece that was part of the SF Homeless Project last year concerning the Homeward Bound program, with Kositsky defending the program then saying, "We’re not going to build our way out of the [homeless] problem."

At issue, really, is the overall lack of existing supportive housing stock, and the time and money it takes to build it, and Kositsky goes on the record as saying he thinks it's "a brilliant thought" to use the Homeward Bound program to get more people out of the existing supportive housing units the city has, freeing them up for others. "From a systemic level, anybody that we can divert out of our system means that there’s going to be more flow in the system,” he tells the Public Press. "More people get shelter, more people get housing, fewer people become chronically homeless."

The next step will be figuring out a metric for how often those who use the program simply return here, to the streets — and it seems nearly impossible to track, beyond the short term, how many return to homelessness elsewhere. As of now, Homeward Bound staffers make a few follow-up phone calls to the families or friends who are housing the individuals, but that's it.

Previously: Mayor's Report Says 19,000 Homeless Off SF Streets, But 8,000 Were Just Bused Out Of Town