Navigation Center Near ‘The Hairball’ Clears Major Hurdle

The Planning Commission approved a site on Bayshore Boulevard for 128 beds to help transition people living on the streets to permanent, secure housing.

A new Navigation Center proposal won the approval of the Planning Commission Thursday, which could radically change a congested area of the city. For more than a year politicians, the SFMTA, the Department of Public Works, and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing have struggled to find a solution for a mess of highway underpasses and sidewalks near Cesar Chavez Avenue and Potrero Avenue, known as the Hairball. With its overhead protection of cement freeways, the Hairball has become a refuge for people experiencing homelessness who’ve been pushed out from more populated areas of the city. As a result, tents, loose dogs, and piles of belongings have clogged the pathways, making it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through. 

In the past, the Department of Public Works has tried to move homeless communities along, and a number of solutions were raised — including the idea of burying the freeways underground. But the Department of Homelessness and Supervisor Hillary Ronen came up with a better idea: build a Navigation Center nearby, to help transition people from the streets to permanent housing.

A little scouting turned up a large empty site nearby at 125 Bayshore Blvd., and on Thursday a proposed Navigation Center at the site received the Planning Commission’s blessing.

The inside of the warehouse at 125 Bayshore Blvd. (Image: DeRose Appelbaum)

The proposed site features two vacant buildings — a warehouse and an office — that were last used to house industrial equipment rentals. Over the next few months, a dormitory, community room, and “quiet room” would be constructed, along with laundry facilities and more than 3,000 square feet of storage for residents’ belongings. Two trailers will be brought in to be used as shower facilities, and large decks will be installed to make the space more friendly and visually appealing.

The office space at 125 Bayshore Blvd, which will be used for staff to provide services to residents. (Image: DeRose Appelbaum)

The office building will provide a space for approximately 17 Navigation Center staff to work, and for social service providers to meet with residents, providing counseling, housing assistance, job search support, and medical services.

Del Seymour, who spoke at the Planning Commission hearing, voiced his support for the center. “It’s a necessary step up,” he said. “We need about 35 of these, so I’m not only speaking for this one but the next 34 that’s coming up before you in the next few years. Some of the current ones will retire, and we need to identify future sites.”

Melody, a homeless woman who lives on the street, also took the mic — not necessarily to speak in opposition to the plan, but to challenge the assumption that the Navigation Centers are the only answer.

“All the people on three blocks branching off of where I stay were swept and put into Navigation Centers,” she said. “Starting Monday of this last week, they’re all back, on this street. So the Navigation Centers, from what I understand, are only a 30 to 90-day turnaround. They’re only a revolving door. They don’t relieve homelessness. They look great on paper, but the people who are back on my block don’t feel like they were cared about at all.”

In response to Melody’s statement, Commissioner Kathrin Moore asked for statistics on the success of the program, voicing concern that the time period people could stay was too short.

Emily Cohen from the Department of Homelessness pointed out that about half of the beds at the Navigation Center are designated as “pathway to housing,” and are reserved specifically for the most vulnerable people who come in the doors, as well as those who have experienced longtime chronic homelessness. For that population, the timeline is extended. Overall, about 54 percent of those who’ve passed through Navigation Centers have been transferred to housing or other facilities. 

In the end, the Planning commissioners voted unanimously in support of the plan. 

All told, the project is estimated to cost $6.1 million in rent and capital improvements during its tenure. As with every Navigation Center currently operating in the city, the site would not be permanent — the proposal the Planning Commission approved only lists it in operation for a maximum of six years. But if its efforts are successful, hundreds may receive the support they need to get off the streets — and the Hairball may once again become passable for commuters.

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