Michael Wright attempts to show members of the San Francisco Port Commission some news articles during public comment on the proposed Embarcadero Navigation Center on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Controversial navigation center on the Embarcadero approved to house homeless

Amid unrelenting opposition from nearby residents, the San Francisco Port Commission Tuesday unanimously approved plans for a navigation center.

Amid unrelenting opposition from nearby residents, the San Francisco Port Commission Tuesday unanimously approved plans for a navigation center that will eventually bring 200 beds for homeless people to the Embarcadero.

The highly anticipated vote came after weeks of community meetings that drew heated crowds and laid bare mixed feelings over how San Francisco plans to address more than 7,500 people counted as homeless on any given night.

“I think it’s so terrific that you are so concerned about the homeless. But I wish you were concerned about the people who help this city survive,” Sheila Clayman, a resident of the area, during public comment that spanned several hours. “I am concerned for my own personal safety.”

Supporters of the proposal showed up in equal force, and included advocates for homeless people as well as neighbors of the proposed center.

“Doing nothing is not really an option,” said Patricia Stone, who lives two blocks away from the site. “It might be slightly too big, it might have other constraints to it, but I think it’s important for us to take ownership in moving the homeless in this neighborhood, and there are a lot of them here, off the streets.”

The commissioners weighed hours of testimony from supporters and advocates against concerns from residents and business owners in the area that have organized in opposition since the center was first proposed by Mayor London Breed in March.

“I believe that we should do it without delay,” said Commissioner Victor Makras. “I think simultaneously we can work on improving the management and oversight. I believe that we should identify alternative sites for homeless shelters, so that when we find a permanent use for this site, we can relocate it.”

Commissioner Gail Gilman said that she heard residents’ concerns, but said that San Francisco would not see improvements in reducing its homeless population without providing shelter.

“I know that for many of you this is not an ideal situation, and I hear that,” said Gilman. “What you are not seeing is the 19-year-old LGBT person who is being kicked out of their home.”

“Until we can temporarily house all of our fellow San Francisans living on our streets, we will have people in encampments, squatting, living on the street unsafely, who themselves will be victimized by no fault of their own,” Gilman added.

Commissioner Doreen Woo Ho, assured residents that the center will be temporary, and that the Port plans to proceed with developing the site for long term use.

“There is a lot of accountability needed and execution is critical,” said Woo Ho. “We are here to hopefully demonstrate that if this navigation center works in this kind of neighborhood in this kind of city, then it will work everywhere in the city. We are here for all of San Francisco, not just the waterfront.”

During a Board of Supervisors hearing on Tuesday, Breed reiterated her support for the center, which she called “necessary.”

“If this SAFE navigation center does not work, if it does not keep clients and neighbors safe and stable, then we should not continue to fund it,” she said.

The original proposal had called for a SAFE navigation center serving between 175 and 225 people near the residential stretch of the waterfront, on a Port-owned site called Seawall Lot 330, which currently serves as a parking lot.

After going public with a goal of adding 1,000 new shelter beds for the homeless by 2020, Breed proposed the Embarcadero center as the largest of its kind in San Francisco, sparking almost immediate opposition from residents of South Beach, Rincon Hill and other surrounding areas.

The plan has since been modified to appease opponents. Revisions made over the past weeks included scaling down the center by building 130 beds first and then increasing its size over a seven-month period, for a total of 200 beds.

Initially proposed to operate at the site for four years, the city will now hold two-year lease with the Port with the option for a two-year extension. Dedicated beat patrol officers will also be assigned to the site as an increased safety measure.

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the site of the center, pushed for the changes, and in a statement on Tuesday said that he is supportive of the new plan.

“Ultimately I’m confident that this navigation center will directly address the homelessness crisis…and make a positive impact in this neighborhood,” said Haney, who has introduced legislation mandating navigation centers in every supervisorial district. Currently, The City’s six navigation centers operate in just three neighborhoods.

But many neighbors who spoke on Tuesday said that they felt The City’s concessions were hardly a compromise.

South Beach resident Judy Dundas said there’s been nearly “100 percent opposition” to project but “The City hasn’t listened” to residents of the neighborhood.

“It’s still 200 beds. The lease is still four years with the renewal, the safety plan is not written into the MOU. We have no recourse,” said Dundas.

Over the past weeks and again on Tuesday, many expressed concerns about homeless residents being “imported” into the area, increasing crime, substance abuse, loitering and quality of life issues. Many have said that the waterfront site is not an appropriate location for a homeless shelter.

Stephen Zocchi, who also lives close to the site of the proposed center, said that a petition signed by more than 2,600 neighbors who oppose the center is circulating, and asked the Commission to postpone a vote on the proposal.

“We have things that need to be worked out, like metrics for performance and scalability, or a process for residents to be involved in the lease renewal,” said Zocchi. “These are things that still need to be done and will make it a better plan that the community will get behind.

Early in the hearing, real estate attorney Andrew Zacks, who spoke during public comment, alluded to legal challenges should the commission approve the proposal. Zacks alleged that The City has violated the Brown Act by failing to show documents he requested when the center was proposed, and that approving the center was a violation of “public trust.”

Over $100,000 has been raised by opponents of the proposal to hire Zacks. A competing fundraising campaign has raised over $175,000 in support.

The San Francisco Examiner reportedly previously that Port staff recommended that the commission approve the proposal, citing increasing challenges in addressing a growing homeless population on or near Port property.

A survey conducted by HSH identified 179 people living unsheltered within an outreach zone proposed for the center, roughly spanning an area encompassed by the Embarcadero, Market and Fourth streets.

Supporters of the center argued that San Francisco’s homeless population deserves additional services and that the navigation center is a modest and humane step toward solving The City’s homelessness crisis.

“Building beds and providing services is the first step to addressing homeless encampments and those who are in crisis, shouting frighteningly on the street. We can’t help any of these people if they are sleeping in tents on the street,” Jim Greer, a 20 year resident of District 6. “There’s no perfect place for a center like this, no perfect design. I ask the commission to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, urged the commission to “stand up to hate,” and called out rhetoric by opponents that she perceived as “class bias [that] has turned into class hatred in this debate.”

“Assuming your child or pet are unsafe merely because they are near a group of poor people is the very definition of class hatred,” said Friedenbach. “It’s inhumane, immoral, not just entitled, it’s spiteful and selfish. When my kids see homeless people, they ask me how we can help them.”

Another woman who advocated for the center said that The City is not “a gated community.”

“In San Francisco, we don’t get to choose our neighbors,” the woman said.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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