San Francisco struggling to open additional Navigation Centers

One day after San Francisco swept the homeless and their tents from 19 city blocks, Mayor Ed Lee’s homeless czar said a second Navigation Center will not open for another six months.

That announcement on Wednesday by Sam Dodge drew sharp criticism from a member of the Board of Supervisors.

“I think it’s outrageous that we are talking about six months,” said Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission, where the recent homeless sweeps occurred along Division Street. “It is unacceptable.”

More Navigation Centers could have prevented the recent sweeps, say those critical of the practice. Those living in tents on Division Street and Showplace Square were ordered to vacate the area due to health hazards, culminating in a large sweep early Tuesday, when dozens of tents were cleared from Division Street and Showplace Square.

The Navigation Center model has less rules than a conventional shelter and allows people to bring in their belongings and pets and come and go as they please. Some even argue The City should allow the tents in certain areas and provide resources like bathrooms and refuse receptacles, pointing to Seattle, which has permitted “tent cities.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said sweeps are not the best approach to address those living on the streets.

“In many ways, the Navigation Center is an example of how to address encampments in a humane way,” Friedenbach said.

Since the Navigation Center opened at 1950 Mission St. in March 2015, 310 clients have been served as of Monday. It has placed 127 clients into permanent housing and provided transportation outside of The City under the Homeward Bound program to stable living situations for 109. Nearly two-thirds of the clients arrived with at least three bags.

To date, no additional sites for a second Navigation Center have been determined.

The lack of new sites comes even as Mayor Lee announced in September that he put $3 million into a special city fund to pay for additional centers and was reaching out to technology companies and others to contribute to the cause.

Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, told the board’s Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday he was “trying to shrink” the six-month timeline for a new Navigation Center. He added, “We were very close with one location and it fell through. It’s not like I haven’t been working on this.”

It was the second hourslong committee hearing on the homeless issue in two weeks.

After the hearing, Dodge identified the site that fell through as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 906 Broadway in District 3. He said he remains in talks about other sites with the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, which oversees areas like Mission Bay; San Francisco Unified School District, City College of San Francisco and the Presidio.

Campos also was critical of the homeless sweeps.

“I think it is cruel to move people out and throw away their belongings without a place to go,” Campos said. “If you are doing that, you are not solving any problem.”

The mayor has defended the practice, calling the sites a health hazard and public nuisance necessitating the cleanup. Those living in tents were given 72 hours to clear out, and after the deadlines expired, The City moved in Tuesday for an extensive cleanup of the area, putting up barricades to prevent the homeless from returning. In all, 65 tents were removed from the area by city workers that day.

City officials said they had the resources to accommodate those living in the area, like at the temporary 180-bed shelter at Pier 80. That site was set to close this month, but Dodge said he is working with the Port to keep it in use until May.

The Homeless Outreach Team contacted those in the area where the sweeps occurred multiple times. During the past week, 114 persons accepted offers of shelter, according to Rachael Kagan, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health.

The Coalition on Homelessness estimated 300 people were impacted by the sweeps.

Campos vowed to continue to hold hearings to receive updates on efforts to open up additional Navigation Centers and ensure they come on line sooner than six months.

“It takes actually someone trying to make it happen for it to actually happen,” Campos said. He said residents “would be better off dealing with a Navigation Center in their neighborhood … than actually having people camping out in front of their house.”

“One of those things is going to happen,” Campos added. “The people camping out is already happening. It is not going to go away on its own.”

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