1950 Mission. Image from Google Street View.

At 1950 Mission Street, in the long abandoned site of the Phoenix Continuation High School near 16th Street, the architects of a new pilot program for the space presented their plan for a “navigation center” offering some 75 homeless adults temporary shelter while the city helps them find and move to a more stable placement.

“The Navigation Center is something very different,” said Bevan Dufty, director of the Mayor’s program for homelessness, about the six to eight month pilot planned for the bungalows that once housed classrooms. “It’s a new approach to respond to long time dwellers on the street.”

The center will deal with the more persistent communities of homeless people in the Mission. Though counts vary, Dufty estimated that there’s hundreds who make the streets of the Mission their home on a nightly basis. These are people for whom traditional shelters may not be the best fit or who avoid them for many reasons.

“Hundreds remain on the street because they have too many possessions and their ability to have possessions at a shelter is limited, or they’re in a couple and can’t stay together if they go into a shelter,” said Dufty, who explained that many homeless people, such asLGBT homeless people, have had negative experiences at shelters and have made the calculation that the street is safer for them.

Plans for 1950 Mission’s Navigation Center.

“This is going to be a low-threshold facility, we won’t set up a lot of rules so as to attract people who may not have anywhere else to go,” said Dufty.

In December the city officially purchased the property at 1950 Mission Street from the school district and it plans to eventually develop the property into at least 100 units of affordable housing. However, the Mayor’s Office of Housing won’t send out requests for proposals from developers until this summer and the project likely won’t break ground for another year and half. In the intervening time, the Navigation Center will take over the space.

Funded by a $3 million grant from the Interfaith Council, the property’s 11 bungalows will be converted into dormitories to sleep 75 people, offices for staff members, as well as showers and restrooms.

When operating, the Navigation Center will function very differently from a traditional shelter. Residents will be able to come and go at will, they’ll be able to hold onto their possessions, and stay with partners. Crucially, the Navigation Center will be staffed by counselors who will work with residents to get them permanent housing or into social services.

“People staying on the street need the most help,” said Laura Guzman of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, who is a partner in the plans for the Navigation Center. For one, Guzman said that the creation of the Navigation Center will provide more detox beds for homeless people to get medical attention and into safer paths.

Of the roughly 50 people gathered in the cool night air of the outer courtyard of 1950 Mission to learn about the Navigation Center, many seemed broadly supportive of the initiative. However, there were lots of questions about the specifics of the program, which Dufty explained still had much to be fleshed out.

One man who owns a business on 16th Street, expressed concern about the threat to safety the center could create given its few barriers to admittance.

“Aren’t you concerned you could be creating a drug haven here?” he asked, and said he wanted to know if the grant funding the project would go to getting more police officers on patrol at the troubled intersection of 16th and Mission Street.

Dufty said the precise safety plan is still being determined but funding for the program would not go towards funding additional officers. Furthermore, he said, it was important to avoid making the center feel like a prison, or else those living on the street the longest won’t make use of the facility.

The police will be a partner in the project and its homeless outreach team will work to refer people to the Navigation Center.

“Having to arrest a homeless person is one of the toughest thing I have to deal with,” said Officer Mike Nevin, of the police’s homeless outreach team. “While a lot of plans need to get worked out, if the Navigation Center can help get a homeless person on their feet again, I’m all for that.”

Working with the city’s Human Service Agency, the Navigation Center will aim to get as many homeless people as possible into more permanent residences within the neighborhood. However, where exactly those might be is a complicated question and created much discussion Thursday evening.

The 16th and Mission area has one of the highest concentration of SROs (single residency occupancies) and unlike other parts of the city such as the Tenderloin where the SROS are run by city agencies or non-profits, most in the Mission are privately owned. This means that they are far from ideal placements for people getting off the street.

Dufty said that part of the grant money will go towards leasing these rooms and working with building owners to make their SROs more hospitable. He also said the city’s lawsuits against hotel owners whose facilities have not been up to code have also been effective. Residents of the Navigation Center will also be placed in a programs like Health Service’s Homeward Bound, which works to reconnect homeless people with their families.

The Navigation Center will likely open in March, though Dufty said another round of public meetings is likely to occur in the next few weeks.

With its short lifespan, the Navigation Center is a bit of an experiment and Dufty says there’s “going to be mistakes, but we’ll be we’ll be accountable to responding to them.” It’s an experiment that’s modeled in part a program in Philadelphia called Pathways to Housing, which has moved 400 people off the street in the five years of its existence.

As Dufty describes it, “this is about giving people a path who didn’t have one before.”

A man sleeps in a doorway on Caledonia Street, just around the corner from businesses on 16th Street.

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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