New Navigation Centers Hindered by Bureaucracy

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing was raked across the coals by supervisors Thursday, out of frustration with the city's inaction and red tape in opening new Navigation Centers.

A fiery hearing on the city’s lackluster response to its homelessness crisis disclosed that one of the major issues preventing future Navigation Centers from opening is layers of bureaucracy from the very department created to solve the issue.

The hearing, held during the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, had to move from one meeting room to a larger chamber several minutes in, to accommodate not just the large crowd, but all the supervisors who wanted to participate. Normally only three are on the committee — Rafael Mandelman, Catherine Stefani, and Shamann Walton — but Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Vallie Brown, and Aaron Peskin all sat in to interrogate city agencies, including Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Jeff Kositsky, on the lackluster progress. 

Central to much of the discussion was the frustration they had in trying to open Navigation Centers in their districts. Supervisor Hillary Ronen has led this charge by leaps and bounds in District 9. The first-ever Navigation Center opened at 1950 Mission St. when former-Supervisor David Campos was still in office; but since taking the reins Ronen has opened another at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. and 224-242 South Van Ness Ave. 

Ronen has long called on other supervisors to pull their weight in their districts, and although Navigation Centers have yet to open up anywhere other than the Mission, Dogpatch, and SoMa, it’s apparently not solely for a lack of trying. Supervisor Vallie Brown says she’s been doggedly looking for sites in District 5.

I’ve sent you different community centers, different buildings to look into,” she said to Kositsky. “I’ve been reaching out to churches — why aren’t churches opening up their doors and we can put services in there? I want to look in the parks for a Navigation Center. If that’s what it’s going to take we need to look at our city land, our city buildings, for a Navigation Center. I have one of the largest transitional age youth populations in the city, yet there is no Navigation Center in Haight Ashbury. That should have been built years ago.” 

Across town, in the northeast corner of the city, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin faces similar pushback.

I’ve been trying for three years to get Our Lady of Guadalupe Church,” Peskin said. “I tried to get 88 Broadway. I went to Mayor Lee, and he said he supported it, but [we had to] get the support of constituents. We did that. Today I still don’t have that site, because various government officials have gotten in the way of that.” 

Peskin didn’t stop there. “We found Port land, on the corner of Bay and Kearny. The Port was willing to do it, I was willing to do it, we did the work. And yet the system — and yes, you, respectively Mr. Kositsky — put the kibosh on that too. I want a Navigation Center, or a respite site, or a shelter, in the northeast corner of the city. The bureaucracy has made this not happen. It is time to hold our department heads accountable. Why have you resisted our efforts for a site in District 3?”

The answer, predictably, seems to begin and end with money. “When you have a site for short-term and you’re going to spend millions of dollars in capital to have a site for a year or two, it doesn’t really make sense,” Kositsky said, stating that Navigation Centers have to be “cost-effective, scalable, and sustainable.” 

It’s an easy answer to give, and in an ideal world, Navigation Centers would meet all three of those qualifications. But, Mayor Ed Lee’s original Navigation Center plan very much included temporary sites — because the scale of the crisis on our streets is more important than how long a center lasts. The understanding was always that some sites being leased from developers would close after a year or two, and that new ones would open to maintain a supply of beds.

This was the model used with the two first Navigation Centers — both the one at 1950 Mission St., which was open for three years, and the one at the Civic Center Hotel, which opened in 2016. The latter was expected to be run for just two years before it’s knocked down for affordable housing, but it’s still running today. 

And, the pending Transitional Age Youth Navigation Center disrupts the cost argument; it’s been fully funded for more than a year, and yet a site has yet to be identified or to open. 

“If we can’t find a site in an entire year to even start building to deal with the crisis of traditional age youth that are on the streets. … How do you not create an alternative plan?” Ronen asked. “Do you see what I’m saying? We cannot accept no for an answer. I have a hard time believing we could not find a single site in District 5. I really do.” 

Overall, very few answers were given to the supervisors and hearing attendees. 

“It’s very rare that I get this frustrated or upset,” said Peskin, before storming out of the chamber. “But Jeff, you’ve got to, one way or another, step up.”

“How are you going to treat this like the emergency like it is?” Ronen asked Kosistky. “We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but if we don’t get off our asses, get in the communities, find these spaces, then we’re going to have the same conversation for the next decade to come, and frankly I’m sick of it.”

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