Officials congregate in the courtyard of the Embarcadero Safe Navigation Center during a tour on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Hotly contested Embarcadero Navigation Center opens, with more to come

The grand opening of a 200-bed Navigation Center near San Francisco’s Waterfront on Tuesday marked a victory for Mayor London Breed, who pushed through the homeless shelter despite stark opposition from neighbors over the past year.

Virtually since its inception, housed residents living near Piers 30-32 — where the temporary shelter has risen on a parking lot in recent months and will operate for a minimum of two years — have attempted to block it. Opponents said they feared it would increase crime, drug use and other issues that the neighborhood is grappling with and even sued to try to stop the project in its tracks.

Standing in a fenced-in courtyard that separates the center’s dormitory from its cafeteria and a trailer with showers and restrooms on Tuesday, Breed assured neighbors that the shelter would do more good than harm in their neighborhood. She also promised that more shelter beds are coming.

“I know this hasn’t been easy. I will say we are still committed, now that this place is open and available, to working with this community to make sure we fulfill promises around safety and a number of other challenges that people were so concerned about,” she said.

Mayor London Breed, state Sen. Scott Wiener and Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, tour the dining and community room at the Embarcadero Safe Navigation Center on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

To that end, four full-time police officers have been added to Southern Police Station to patrol a designated “safety zone” — spanning some four blocks around the center — on every day of the week.

“It’s paramount importance for us to make sure the place is clean, and the outside is maintained. It’s important we make sure there are no needles, [and that we are] picking up trash whether it’s ours or not,” said Steve Goode, director of Five Keys, the non-profit education management corporation that will manage the site.

Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing [HSH] director Jeff Kositsky said that his department is aiming to admit 130 people within the first 10 days of the facility opening at the end of this month, and then “ramp up to full capacity of 200 over the next six months. “

Late last year, Breed set a goal of opening 1,000 new beds by the end of 2020, and the Embarcadero center brought The City’s count of new beds up to 566.

An additional 224 beds are in the pipeline, Breed said.

But while she called for more beds and additional resources, Breed appeared hesitant to directly support legislation re- introduced Tuesday by Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district encompasses the Embarcadero Navigation Center. The legislation calls for every supervisorial district to open a similar center and seeks to extend client stays at navigation centers to at least 90 days.

“I don’t have the luxury as the mayor to focus on districts. I have a responsibility to the entire city. Whenever I can identify a location to build a navigation center or housing that [location] will be the priority,” said Breed. “Whenever we see an opportunity like this, [we must take a] chance like this — regardless of what district it is in — to build a navigation center.”

Media and city officials enter the navigation center for a preview tour. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The City currently has seven navigation centers in operation, with three in Haney’s district.

In April, Haney, who from the jump has supported the Embarcadero navigation center, introduced a plan at the Board of Supervisors that would direct each of his 10 colleagues to secure a site in their district to operate navigation centers.

A citywide count this year placed San Francisco’s homeless population at over 8,000 people on any given night. While some neighborhoods, particularly in Haney’s district, have higher concentration of homeless individuals, Haney said that other districts need to opt in to solving a citywide problem — or be forced to.

“I think that a shared responsibility across all neighborhoods is the right way to go. It will challenge [HSH], the mayor and the supervisors to identify sites and make this happen,” said Haney on Tuesday.

Haney said he amended the legislation to “really clarify, define and strengthen the model of the navigation center,” which he believes works in addressing homelessness. Navigation centers are different from traditional shelters because they allow clients to stay with their partners, pets and belongings.

Apart from a navigation center in every district, Haney’s legislation calls for “one-on-one case management, intensive services including health services,” and would ensure that “everyone gets a care plan in the first 72 hours” of admittance.

Haney also wants to ensure that “people can stay for longer periods of time if they are participating in services and case management,” so that navigation centers are “truly a transition for people to get off the street and stay off the street.”

The City has been criticized for its practice of offering short-term shelter beds and effectively cycling homeless clients back out onto the streets. Navigation centers were initially opened in The City on the promise that clients could stay until they received housing, but limited resources and push to clear sidewalk encampments has reduced client stays at some centers to as little as a week.

Rows of beds line one of the dormitories at the Embarcadero Safe Navigation Center. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

At the Embarcadero center clients will be admitted for an initial 30 days with the option to renew their stays for another 30 days, according to Kositsky. Those who are engaged with services offered there may stay beyond that time frame, he said.

Haney is pushing for navigation center clients to be able to stay indoors for at least 90 days.

While Breed said that more beds are planned, opening navigation centers is a complex effort and dependent on The City’s ability to locate and secure a site.

“People want to see stuff happen right away, but the fact is that getting access to land to build housing or a navigation center in this city right now is very challenging,’ Breed said.

Long-standing plans for a navigation center serving Transitional Age Youth, for example have yet to come to fruition, despite that center being a stated goal in HSH’s 2019 Strategic Plan, which lists the deadline for its construction as this month.

On Tuesday, Kositsky said his department would announce a site for the TAY center soon, but did not disclose further details.

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