The city’s newest front against an infamously pervasive homelessness problem, an eight- to 18-month pilot project known as the Navigation Center, was slated to open Monday but will instead be delayed until March 30, according to officials.
Episcopal Community Services, a nonprofit that operates several shelters and service centers throughout the city, was awarded the contract to run the Navigation Center just last week. This gave their staff insufficient time to put together a team and infrastructure to run the program, said Santiago Lerma from the city’s Housing Opportunities, Partnerships & Engagement (HOPE) office.
Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) have been traveling to homeless encampments around the city to notify those living on the streets that they might soon have access to showers, temporary beds, case managers, and other resources at the center. A kitchen, meals, television, counselors, and other amenities will also be available, making the center a “one-stop shop” for anything the city thinks a homeless person may need.
The aim, Lerma said, is to find some kind of fit for clients, be it relocation through the Homeward Bound program or an SRO rental. The goal is to rotate those who arrive at the center to more permanent housing within three to ten days. Those who may need longer-term assistance and who are cooperative and productive in their time at the Navigation Center might stay longer, Lerma said. The center will take clients as they come, as soon as it opens, with no reservations made ahead of time.
To several homeless people who didn’t know about the program, it sounded attractive.
Carlos Beza, who has been homeless for four and a half years, can often be found near the former high school where the Navigation Center will open, but had not heard about it. He said the center “sounds pretty good,” and likened his homeless condition to “a bad habit,” possibly referring in part to his years-long habits of drinking and smoking marijuana. But even if he stopped either or both, Beza said, he’s not sure what would happen. The city is expensive, and jobs don’t pay that much – you need to work for a year or so to be stable, he said. He spends his time on the street rather than in a shelter because of the immense effort it takes to even claim a shelter bed.
“I don’t want to go through all that shit,” Beza said. “Phone calls, reservations, you have to stand in line all day.”
Since he transports his scant belongings with him in a shopping cart, Beza would run into trouble with shelters there too, since many don’t allow clients to bring many belongings in. That’s the kind of person the Navigation Center is trying to attract. Bevan Dufty, at the head of the city’s HOPE program, said the goal is to “lower the threshold” to offer those previously excluded from shelters an option.
Kathleen Tidwell, a homeless woman sitting with her dog, also hadn’t heard about the center and eagerly noted information about its location and opening date. She said she has been beaten, mugged, raped, and robbed. Tidwell’s long-term goal is to be a writer, but her immediate need is for a women’s shelter, a place to be away from what she called “dangerous situations.”
She seemed unsure what services she might want to take advantage of at the Navigation Center. “I kind of just want to go see what it’s like,” she said.
Near 19th and Harrison streets, Guadalupe Jimenez was sharing a tent for shade with at least one other person. Because he would rather not burden his acquaintances for a place to stay, Jimenez has been on the streets for ten years after a divorce with his wife. Here, a HOT team had passed through. Jimenez said someone from the city had told him a shelter was opening soon.
“I’m going to go, just to go see what will happen,” he said. He’s hoping to get new clothes, some medication, and either new sleeping bags or a bed to stay in. One of his companions said he’s hoping to find help getting a job to get back on his feet.
Joe Voen, a former maintenance worker sitting on Mission street near the future Navigation Center site, said he would find a drop-in center useful. He lost his job when the economy wasn’t as strong a few years ago, he said, and hasn’t been able to get back on his feet. He’s hoping for drop-in services so he can wash his clothes and take showers.
“That’d be real nice,” said John Ostwald, reorganizing a backpack at McCoppin Square. He’s also interested in finding someplace to go with all his belongings. He’s suffered numerous thefts because he has to sleep outside and can’t guard his property. Ostwald said he is a testicular cancer survivor who was treated in Michigan but eventually lost his health care coverage. Now, he lives on disability but faces plenty of hardship on the streets. He expressed frustration with the city’s policies around homelessness, including ticketing homeless people for sleeping in parks when they are unlikely to pay a citation anyway, the lack of availability of public restrooms, and the complicated process of claiming his benefits.
“It took me three years to get [disability], and in that time I was eating out of garbage cans,” Ostwald said.
There is plenty of skepticism for the Navigation Center among the homeless as well, especially in light of the city’s other practices, such as the ones Ostwald protested.
A man with colorful hair who referred to himself only as Benjamin hesitated to pass judgment on the center before it opened. But he had heard about the center and its amenities before, and expressed some doubts.
“It’s not going to be that easy. Nobody’s just going to present all the options to us,” he said.
Benjamin and another, younger homeless man sitting with him both worried about the possibility of more restrictive policies as a result of the center’s opening – they called it “taking away our choice” to be on the streets. Soon, the second man said, San Francisco would ban having carts of possessions entirely, not just in shelters.
“It’s never been this bad between the homeless and [the rest of] society,” the younger man said. “It’s gonna just keep getting worse.”
Benjamin and his companion were not alone in fearing that the new center will further separate and isolate the homeless from the community. Over at the 16th Street BART plaza a man called Del, who has been in and out of SROs for years after being surprised with child support debts and losing his job some years ago, recently returned to the streets. He said he’s known about the Navigation Center for some time, but is afraid of it because “that thing looks so much like a concentration camp it’s not even funny.”
More concretely, though, Del said he’s concerned that people will be relocated to Oakland. Over there, he said, it’s significantly more dangerous for homeless people who have learned to cope on San Francisco’s streets – “hard-core dope fiends” who steal the wrong person’s stash are in real danger of violence, he said.
A more recently homeless man who didn’t want to be named but lives in an encampment on Harrison Street said he had left an SRO about six months ago.
“I got tired of paying the people. I’m paying you 1600 a month, for what?” he wanted to know.
From descriptions a HOT team had given him, the man said, the center could be useful for some, but he said he was concerned the place would become unmanageable.
“That place is gonna become a turf,” he said. “It’s like the projects. It’ll never work.”
Nonetheless, he said he would have to visit the center to see what the atmosphere is like. What he needs, he said, is knowledge – of how to get ahead in business, how to make a living.
“There’s a lot of homeless people who are educated,” he said. “But it takes so much to make it.”