Navigating Homeless Centers After Lee

Mayor Ed Lee’s commitment to navigation centers was central to the city’s attempt to alleviate homelessness. But now that he’s gone, what’s next?

Whatever your stance on Mayor Ed Lee, he took a huge step toward supporting the city’s homeless population when he launched the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in July 2016.

“All of the ingredients for success on ending homelessness for thousands of our fellow San Franciscans are already here, but it will require cooperation like never before,” Lee said at the time, announcing his goal “to end homelessness for at least 8,000 residents in the next four years.”

That would have meant the end of his term in 2020. We’re nearly halfway through that effort, and so far one tactic has worked very well: navigation centers. Designed as an alternative to the traditional shelter system, navigation centers can incorporate large group encampments, people with many belongings, and even pets — all obstacles that frequently prevent those living on the streets from accessing shelter services. It’s a method that, since the first one opened in 2015, has helped more than 1,000 people get off the streets, 72 percent of whom have gone on to temporary or permanent housing. In a city that has struggled with homelessness for decades, this is an amazing achievement.

But with Lee gone, will navigation centers continue to get the attention and funding they deserve?

It didn’t take long for people to start asking that question. In a Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 12, less than 24 hours after Lee’s death, Sup. Hillary Ronen voiced her concerns about the future of navigation centers. In the past year as supervisor, she and Lee worked closely to address homelessness in her district, which includes the Mission.

“I do not think there is a bigger emergency in the city of San Francisco right now than the fact that over 4,000 individuals are sleeping in the streets,” she said during the meeting. “In a city with a $10 billion budget, we have not yet gotten it together to build enough facilities to temporarily house and give services to these individuals so that they can get their lives back together. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We can’t push people off a cliff.

“Please, please, even though we won’t have Mayor Lee pushing this forward, please continue to work with me to push this forward. This work can’t go backward, and I’m very fearful of this right now.”

That fear is valid. Navigation centers, despite their obvious successes, fall squarely into the “not in my backyard” argument every time a plan to build one is presented. Only a few neighborhoods currently take the brunt of the centers, with two in the Mission, one in Dogpatch, one in SoMa, and another at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Two years in, there are no navigation centers west of Mission Street. Even with Lee’s strong backing, it’s been a struggle to convince supervisors and residents to construct them in their districts — and now that he’s gone, there’s less political pressure to do so.

The future of navigation centers would be less hazy if they were permanent. But in a city that’s always in “build, build, build” mode, locking down real estate for the homeless is a hard task. Navigation centers have been successful so far in part because of the willingness of developers to lease spaces to the city while their buildings wend their way through the Planning Department, a process that often takes years. But once the building permits are signed, the navigation centers have to go. Next spring, two in the Mission District — the first one ever, at 1950 Mission St., and the most recent one, at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. — will be destroyed as permanent housing is constructed in their place.

Anticipating this end to services at those two locations, Lee introduced legislation earlier this month to begin negotiations for two new centers: one at Fifth and Bryant streets, which could hold 80 beds, and another at 13th and Division streets, with 100 beds. The latter would fill the hole that the two disappearing would leave — slightly. Both 1950 Mission St. and 1515 South Van Ness Ave. currently have 195 beds available, so even with this newly proposed one opening in the spring, there would be 95 fewer spots for those who need them. With more than 1,100 people currently on the waiting list for a shelter bed, this is a big blow.

But there is a little hope in all of this, too. While the 13th and Division location would follow the model of other navigation centers currently in operation, Sup. Jane Kim has a different plan for Fifth and Bryant. In her last conversation with Lee, she discussed turning it into a women-only space.

“Earlier this year, the Coalition on Homeless asked if I would do a walk through tour of encampments in my district,” she tells SF Weekly. “During the tour — mainly under freeways — I was a little surprised to see so many women living in encampments.”

Curious what their situations were like, Kim held a listening session with around 50 women experiencing homelessness, at a center on 13th Street. She quickly learned that sexual assault is a major issue for women.

“It’s not a question of if women are raped on the streets, but how often,” she says. “I wanted to work on finding a safe space for women-identified people camping on our streets.”

That safe space, the women told her, would be one where they were free from harassment and violence. They wanted gender-specific services and counseling. They wanted beds.

“Women told me that they feel ignored,” Kim says. “A lot of people think of homeless people as men instead of women. Women have to be more creative. They’re more hidden. The #MeToo movement has been so important for women across the country, and it’s so important to make sure that we’re protecting our most vulnerable populations.”

Another vulnerable population that may be served by navigation centers are transitional aged youth — those between ages 18 and 24, often fresh out of foster care, who live on city streets. While no supervisor has specifically taken on advocating for this population, they are on the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s radar. In a 68-page, five-year strategy plan DHSH released in October, the group announced the goal of building a navigation center that specifically targets youth. If a site is found, a $2.9 million federal grant would be used toward these efforts.

“San Francisco must and will do better,” says Jeff Kositsky, director of DHSH. “We will strive to get house keys into the hands of as many people as possible and improve the quality of life for all San Franciscans, both housed and homeless. Achieving this vision will require nothing short of a radical transformation of the work we do.

“We do not presume to have all the answers,” he adds. “But we have the evidence, drive, and optimism needed to achieve our goals.”

Let’s just hope that without Lee, he can also find the support in City Hall.

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