San Francisco has spent millions of dollars building and operating Navigation Centers since 2015, yet hundreds of homeless people who want to take advantage of the services they offer still find themselves without a bed every night. City officials want to build more but are having a really hard time figuring out where.
The city has been on a continuing hunt for sites to build new Navigation Centers — the enhanced shelters that offer the homeless a place to sleep as well as substance-abuse treatment and job training. Among the places considered and rejected: the shuttered AMC 14 movie theater and the former KRON-TV building on Van Ness Avenue, the never-used and empty 6×6 mall on Market Street, and a closed Pottery Barn in the Castro. Officials have also looked at parking garages, old churches and even the land around the horse stables in Golden Gate Park.
But each one had its problems: Too big, too small, too expensive, too many things to repair or too far away from areas where the homeless congregate.
The city settled on one potential new site last week: Seawall Lot 330 on the Embarcadero, which now is a parking lot owned by the Port of San Francisco. But it comes with its own problems, such as dense neighborhoods nearby full of expensive apartments whose residents might object. It also lacks basic utilities, like water and sewer service.
It is also located in District Six, which might not seem like a problem because most homelessness services are clustered in the southeast quadrant of the city in Districts Six, Nine and 10.
But supervisors outside of those districts are growing increasingly frustrated with the bureaucracy, logistics and millions of dollars involved in opening Navigation Centers, even when they’d welcome one to their district. The lack of success in securing sites has some wondering if they really are the best option for the city’s homeless.
“It is frustrating,” said District Five Supervisor Vallie Brown, who has been vigorously looking for a place to put a Navigation Center, or other type of shelter, in the Haight. “I thought it would be a lot easier.”
Navigation Centers are temporary structures, often built on land slated for development. They have fewer rules than traditional shelters and offer robust services to steer people into permanent housing. San Francisco has created eight of them since March 2015.
If the 200-bed Navigation Center is located at the proposed Embarcadero site, it would be the largest in the city. The Port Commission, which oversees the parcel, plans to take public comment on the proposal on Tuesday.
In the process of deciding on the site, representatives for the mayor’s office and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing vetted and rejected more than a hundred locations around the city.
That’s because creating a Navigation Center isn’t as easy as finding an empty building or open lot and setting up a few beds, said Jeff Kositsky, director of the homelessness department. It takes a “tremendous amount of time and energy” he said.
The first obstacle? Finding a site.
If it’s an empty plot of land, the city needs to ensure it has access to water, electricity and sewer service. If it’s an existing building, it needs to be structurally sound, have proper utility access and be the right size. And that’s assuming the city can first persuade the owner to sell it or lease it for a reasonable price.
Then comes the cost. Building a Navigation Center from scratch, or renovating an existing building, can cost the city $2 million to $3 million, or more. The high price tag quickly becomes hard to justify when the site is only temporary, Kositsky said.
“Some of the Navigation Centers are costing us more than permanent supportive housing,” Kositsky said. “We are open to any and all opportunities so long as it makes sense in terms of the investment and time that it takes.”
Plus, he said, Navigation Centers aren’t the only type of shelters the department has created. Between July 2016 and December 2018, the city added more than 540 units of permanent supportive housing with over 1,000 more in the pipeline. It also opened 80 family shelter beds.
Still, some supervisors are becoming increasingly impatient.
District Three Supervisor Aaron Peskin unleashed his frustration on Kositsky at a recent committee hearing, blasting him for turning down three potential sites Peskin had proposed in his district over the past few years — an old church, a city-owned parking lot and port-owned lot at Bay and Kearny streets.
“I still don’t have that site … because various government officials have gotten in the way of that,” he said, his voice growing tense.
Later that day, Peskin called for a new department leader.
The city had a reason for rejecting each of Peskin’s proposals, however. The church was sold, the city lot was intended for an affordable-housing project and the port property was simply too expensive.
“We are operating with a high sense of urgency,” Kositsky said. “But we are also being smart about what we do.”
Meanwhile, some supervisors are questioning if Navigation Centers are worth the money and effort. Not only are they expensive and temporary, but they don’t always offer adequate services for the mentally ill.
Kositsky said he supports a new shelter model in the city, dubbed Safe Navigation Centers, that offer the same elements of a Navigation Center but are bigger and exist for longer. The proposed Embarcadero site would be the city’s first Safe Navigation Center.
District Eight Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who was originally against bringing a Navigation Center to his district, said while he is now open to one, he said he is looking for other models that would make sense for his district, such as a crisis intervention center or a space with drop-in services.
“I’m not sure how Navigation Centers built in the Richmond, Sunset, Forest Hill — or the Marina, for that matter — would really address a problem” of mental illness, Mandelman said.
The mayor, supervisors and officials at the homelessness department all agree there is simply too much bureaucracy involved in creating more places for people to sleep and transition into housing.
Mayor London Breed is backing two ordinances, which the full Board of Supervisors will consider in the coming weeks, to exempt shelters and Navigation Centers from the building permit process and expedite the hiring of contractors to manage the facilities.
Tuesday, 3:15 p.m.: The San Francisco Port Commission will hear public comment in the Port Commission Hearing Room in the Ferry Building.
Tuesday, 6 to 7:30 p.m.: The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing will host a meeting at 600 The Embarcadero.
Thursday, 5 p.m.: The Mission Bay Citizens Advisory Committee will hold at 225 Berry St.
Even when a location and price are cleared, the city still has another major hurdle: community pushback from those who don’t want to attract more homeless people to their neighborhoods.
Proposals for Navigation Centers, shelters — or even housing for low-income seniors — have received neighborhood pushback in recent years, from the Mission to Forest Hill. Even the proposal for Seawall Lot 330 is expected to face some some opposition at a community meeting Tuesday from residents resistant to putting a shelter near their homes.
“I’ve been looking for some kind of facility that will help us meet the needs of the homeless in Upper Market, Castro, Duboce Triangle, Dolores and Mission, and also help those neighborhoods reduce the presence of homeless folks seeking shelter,” Mandelman said. But, “nothing is going to happen without some degree of buy-in from the neighborhood.”
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