SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco Mayor London Breed touted a 200-bed Navigation Center on the city’s waterfront as a victory in the city’s unremitting battle against homelessness, while inveighing against decades of regulations that have stymied new housing construction both in San Francisco and the rest of the state.
“The bureaucracy in this city and this state makes it impossible to get housing built as fast as we need it,” Breed told a crowd of reporters who had assembled for a tour of the shelter Tuesday morning. “We need to get rid of the bureaucracy and build housing.”
It was a hard-fought victory. Neighborhood watchdog group Safe Embarcadero For All strenuously opposed the shelter in court, filing a petition this past July to block its opening. While the San Francisco Port Commission approved the project in April, the group argued that only California Lands Commission has the authority approve a project on a designated seawall lot.
But their real concern was that the Navigation Center will attract more homeless people to the neighborhood, and with them the property crime, brazen drug use and public defecation to which so many city dwellers have become inured in recent years.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman denied the petition in November.
Steve Good, director of the local nonprofit Five Keys which will help run the center, said homeless clients will be incentivized to police themselves and keep the area around the shelter clean.
“It is of paramount importance to us to make sure the place is clean, the outside is maintained, and it’s important we’re picking up cigarette butts, making sure there’s no needles, picking up trash whether it’s our trash or not,” Good said. “We’re all in this together and it’s important that we need to police each other. If someone is hanging around out front, there’s the opportunity to ruin it for the rest of us. We’re asking our guests be part of our work in making sure that folks aren’t congregating outside, conducting nefarious business outside and helping keep the area clean.”
Deputy Police Chief Greg McEachern said his department has pledged four additional officers to patrol a “safety zone” around the center of two to four blocks. “They will be out there, highly visible, and able to respond when there are concerns from the neighborhood, and as a sense of safety for the neighbors,” he said of his officers.
Breed noted, “The shelter has its own security as well, so we’re hopeful that will do the job. I’m confident things are going to go well here.”
She said neighborhoods with navigation centers that provide housing assistance, mental health counseling, and drug use treatment have shown a slight decrease in crime. “We’re going to be tracking and sharing that information with the public,” she said.
The city’s seventh – and largest – Navigation Center is in Supervisor Matt Haney’s District 6, which includes the Tenderloin, Civic Center, Mid-Market, and other areas where the homelessness problem has been the most concentrated. Haney has called for the city to open similar centers in every district that currently lacks one.
But Breed says she doesn’t have the luxury of thinking of the city in terms of districts. Because of the difficulty in acquiring land in San Francisco, she said she’s open to building Navigation Centers and affordable housing anywhere land is available.
“Getting access to land to build housing or a Navigation Center right now is very challenging,” Breed said. “We have been in contact with a lot of people and we are not going to make anything public until we have it settled and it’s clear that we’re going to be able to move forward.”
The spartan but brightly lit center boasts a community room, medical clinic, and several small meeting rooms where clients can receive mental health counseling. Good said there will also be an activities director on staff running exercise programs, cultural celebrations, baby showers and anything else “to really enhance the experience for our guests who are staying here.”
Instead of traditional security, Good said guests will be greeted by a Five Keys staff member who will check them for weapons and go over the rules of the facility.
Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said clients will be brought in by the homeless outreach team, starting with the closest population of homeless people in Embarcadero Center.
“Hopefully we’ll be getting initially 130 people indoors 10 days after it opens, and we’ll be ramping up to the full capacity of 200 over the next six months,” he said. Guests will be allowed to stay for an initial 30 days and can renew that stay on a monthly basis.
“As long as people are taking advantage of services and moving toward exiting homelessness, they can continue to stay,” Kositsky said. “The goal is people will leave here into a place of safety.”
Matt Carson, who lives and works in the neighborhood, said he supports the shelter.
“My neighbors do have some legitimate concerns. I’ve seen shattered glass from car windows and stolen bikes. And like my neighbors, I don’t want to see these problems get worse. but the mayor, Supervisor Haney and the city have promised that the center will make things better in the neighborhood, not worse,” he said. “The reason I trust them to do that is simple. If crime does go up here, they will not able to build any more navigation centers.”
The newest Navigation Center brings Breed just a few hundred beds shy of her goal of 1,000 shelter beds in San Francisco by 2020. On Tuesday, Breed said there are 224 more beds planned for another Navigation Center in the Bayview.
State Assembly member Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, commended Breed for having the “courage” to open the Embarcadero center.
“It’s not easy to stand in front of two to three hundred angry people and talk about the issue of homelessness and bringing in navigation centers into a neighborhood that traditionally hasn’t had them,” he said. “This community is safer not by having people on the streets sleeping, not from having people in tents, not from having people wandering around here. It is much safer when there is shelter and services. This is a San Francisco problem and San Francisco needs to solve it.”