Pressure mounts to expand Navigation Centers amid controversial homeless sweeps

As San Francisco remains divided over last week’s homeless sweeps, questions linger over Mayor Ed Lee’s plans to expand Navigation Centers around The City — and the lack of them.

When the first Navigation Center opened nearly a year ago at 1950 Mission St., it was hailed as a creative solution with great potential. Those involved in the effort say it’s not disappointed.

The site lacks the rules of a conventional shelter, allowing people to come and go, keep belongings, sleep with their loved ones — all while connecting them to services and housing. It was the homeless who live on the streets, often in tents, for whom the model was meant to appeal.

But with all its success, an unanswered question remains: Why hasn’t the model yet expanded to other sites?

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the potential expansion of the Navigation Center model, when officials with the mayor’s office are expected to discuss the plan. It’s unclear, however, where the new centers could be located.

Supervisor Norman Yee, who sits on the committee, said via text message Monday that “locations been thrown around but nothing definitive.”

Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission, including the area of the recent controversial sweeps of homeless residents who live in tents, said his district “stepped up last year” by creating an LGBT shelter and the first Navigation Center, and that it’s time for other districts to step up as well.

Campos noted that at the center’s opening last year that there was a need for several centers around The City.

“There’s a complete failure by this mayor to deal with this issue,” Campos said Monday, adding that “we want to have answers from this administration.”

Campos suggested more centers could have avoided the growth of tents along Division Street, which caused residents and area businesses to complain.

Amid the criticism, The City condemned the tents along Division and 13th streets beneath U.S. Highway 101 as a health hazard, and gave the homeless 72 hours to vacate. That notice expired at 5 p.m. Friday. A similar notice was posted for those living in tents at Showplace Square with a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday.

The City offered these people a roof at Pier 80, a temporary shelter near Mission Bay that opened in February. With the deadlines expired, a fewer number of tents and those living in them remain in the area as of Monday afternoon. Some had moved to Pier 80, while others moved to side streets.

“Having more creative models like a Navigation Center model would make a big difference,” Kelly Hiramoto, who oversees the Homeless Outreach Team, said last week during a board committee hearing.

Pier 80 is not a Navigation Center, nor is it ideal to become one, according to Mayor Ed Lee’s homeless czar Sam Dodge. Last week, Dodge called Pier 80 “intimidating” with its high fences, barbed wire, and industrial shed “three blocks long.”

“There are some other options,” Dodge said at the time, but stopped short of specifics.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said shelter providers plan to discuss at Wednesday’s hearing overhauling the shelter system to transition into housing two people for every one bed annually.

“We want to stop this sort of shuffling people around and saying this is what it will take,” Friedenbach said.

There were few takers of the Pier 80 accommodations over the weekend as the deadlines passed to vacate. Of the 113 people in the Division Street/Showplace Square areas contacted by the homeless outreach team over the weekend, seven accepted shelter at Pier 80, according to Rachael Kagan, a spokesperson for the Public Health Department.

One Pier 80 occupant, Allen Lee, 52, said he returned to San Francisco from Louisiana about a month ago. “Pier 80 came and got me,” said Lee, who was wearing a wristband needed for entry into the facility. “You get three hot meals a day. It’s really excellent.” He has a bike, which he used to ride to the Division Street area to meet a friend.

Meanwhile, on the corner of Harrison and 13th streets and across from Rainbow Grocery, “Hun” stood by his belongings, sweeping the area in the afternoon sun.

“I’d rather live outside, alone. You avoid a lot of the problems. It’s all regimentation,” said the 57-year-old, who added that he has lived on the streets since 1997, after leaving his Potrero Hill apartment amid rent hikes, a collecting habit and the loss of employment.

Hun had moved his belongings away from the area of the sweeps, but that, for him, is just another day.

“Generally, I get rousted at least three or four times a week by the police. I have to move. Basically, I spend all my days moving and then when I am not moving, I am recuperating.”

Dodge said last week that the Navigation Center has brought 355 people “off the streets.”

“Seventy-nine percent of the exits have been to housing or in long-term treatment,” he said, adding, “Over all it’s been a great success.”

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