More than 1,400 children and youth under the age of 25 were counted as homeless in San Francisco last year — with about half identifying as queer — yet two-year-old plans for a Navigation Center solely serving this vulnerable group have yet to come to fruition.
San Francisco’s newest supervisor, who represents neighborhoods including the Castro District, Glen Park and Noe Valley, is looking to change that, and made finding housing for The City’s homeless, particularly its marginalized youth, a key promise in his campaign.
“I want to get queer youth indoors, I want to get all youth indoors,” said Rafael Mandelman, speaking some two weeks after having won the District 8 seat in the June 5 election that resulted from Mayor Ed Lee’s unexpected death in December. “There’s been a lot of talk about having a youth Navigation Center and we need to push for it.”
In 2016, a city ordinance was approved requiring that six Navigation Centers — or low-barrier shelters that allow clients to bring their pets, some property and partners — open within two years, including one for transitional age youth.
Currently, The City is operating four centers in the Mission, Dogpatch, Civic Center and Potrero Hill neighborhoods, and is currently in the process of building three more.
But funding and location challenges have contributed to the youth shelter’s delay. Proposition D, which sought to increase The City’s tax on commercial rents by 1.7 percent for housing and homeless services, would have earmarked some $3.5 million in funding for the center, but was voted down on the June 5 ballot.
Neighborhoods also have resisted hosting such a facility. Last month, residents in the Haight — which, like the Castro District has historically served as a hub for transient youth — objected to the notion of a youth-focused Navigation Center temporarily rising in the Stanyan Street lot where a shuttered McDonald’s soon will be razed.
Mandelman, 44, said that he is aware of some residents’ aversion to having a homeless shelter in their neighborhood, but said that the status quo is unacceptable.
“With any proposal that we might come forward with, whether it’s a temporary Navigation Center, a respite center, a shelter, or permanent supportive housing — whatever set of things we might ask the Castro or any other neighborhood to do — we have to demonstrate to the neighbors that it’s not going to worsen their quality of life,” said Mandelman. “You have to show them that you are doing things to actually improve it.”
Mandelman, who unseated incumbent Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, has shared stories about his upbringing, which he says has influenced his priorities as a politician. Like many young queer people, Mandelman found an accepting community in San Francisco, where he moved from Laguna Beach as a child.
The move to The City was not voluntary, however. At age 11, Mandelman moved in with his grandmother, after his mentally ill mother became unable to care for him.
“She was gradually falling apart,” said Mandelman, describing that chapter in his life as “challenging.”
“Her life got worse and worse. She ended up getting institutionalized,” he said, adding that while his mother never lived on the streets, “she was in a homeless shelter for a while, and in a number of not-so-great [care facilities].”
Mandelman eventually moved his mother to a Jewish residential care home in San Francisco, where she lived out the rest of her life.
His mother’s struggle, as well as years he’s spent advocating for low-income students as a City College of San Francisco trustee and for queer youth as the chair of the Castro’s LGBT Center, have shaped his views on homelessness significantly.
“At CCSF and the LGBT center, you see more of these younger people who often just need a chance — they need housing, maybe some structure, some opportunities,” he said. “From my mother, I learned that there are people who are really broken, and expecting those people to show responsibility or initiative or pick themselves up… to access services on their own, that is crazy.”
After years of steering City College through an accreditation crisis that at one point threatened to shut it down, Mandelman is now poised to transition from his role of trustee with a legacy that includes providing free tuition to students. He has also been part of developing plans around housing homeless students on or near campus.
As a city supervisor, Mandelman said he is eager to “continue that conversation.”
Mandelman’s run for supervisor took place against the backdrop of a highly contested mayoral race that concluded last week with former state Sen. Mark Leno conceding to London Breed, president of the City’s Board of Supervisors.
Mandelman said that while he believes Breed will support him in his priorities on homelessness, he and many others in the LGBT community were “excited” at the prospect of Leno, who is openly gay, becoming San Francisco’s’ “first queer Mayor.”
“I have concerns about where the LGBT community is politically in The City right now. We have great representation on the City College board, but that’s about it,” he said. “It feels like queer political power has declined some, and maybe that’s a healthy thing in that LGBT people are voting not just based on sexual orientation but on their politics and values, and they have that luxury.”
“But when you look the state of LGBT politics in the country, with where the national administration is and the state of queer people even in San Francisco with these housing and homelessness statistics…It’s concerning to me that we were not able to elect a queer mayor,” he added.
Mandelman is expected to be sworn in as a supervisor in July, but first plans to celebrate LGBT culture as the Castro District readies itself for Pride this weekend.
“One thing that has not declined is the community’s capability to deliver a gazillion fabulous parties in June,” he said. “There will always be queer kids, adults, seniors who are coming into their own, finding themselves and for whom this community celebration is super important.”