Blocked sidewalks, litter, discarded needles, drug and alcohol abuse, and threatening behavior by homeless individuals have long been thorns in the sides of Mission residents, especially those with children, and many say the situation has worsened as homeless encampments on their streets become more entrenched.
Tuesday night a number of residents who brought their case to Mission Station’s police captain at the monthly community meeting were briefed about the Navigation Center, a new approach by the city to address homelessness. Bevan Dufty, who runs the city’s efforts to help the homeless, fielded questions about the center, which opened this week at the former site of Phoenix High School on Mission Street. The center will be in place temporarily, putting the space to use until planned construction of affordable housing units begins.
The Navigation Center is designed to accommodate around 75 people at a time, with the intent of finding some kind of longterm solution for them within about ten days and keeping them from returning to the streets. HOT (homeless outreach teams) members seek out groups of good candidates for the program on the street and bring them to the center together, allowing tight-knit groups to maintain a sense of community.
“There is an effort to make a pre assessment and figure out what someone’s situation is, how willing the group is to come, do they need convincing, all of these things,” Dufty explained later.
The center, Dufty reported at the meeting, has already accepted 16 homeless from around the city, a few of them from Shotwell Street, and has found tentative placement for two. The center, unlike shelters, accepts couples and pets, and allows clients to bring bulkier belongings.
But with the center working through only 75 cases at a time, several community members wanted to know what they could do about homeless encampments, especially if they felt threatened by mentally ill people or witnessed obviously illegal activity.
“When there’s definite breaking of the law on my block, I expect the police to show up,” one resident said.
Residents complain that they call and call the emergency number, but police response is lackluster.
Mission Station’s Captain Daniel Perea underscored the limitations of the SFPD when it comes to moving homeless people. Officers can order people to pack up their tents or pick up their belongings to clear the sidewalk or ask someone to stand up if they are in violation of the “sit/lie” law. But beyond issuing citations they know will never be paid, or escorting DPW cleaning crews to entrenched encampment spots to clean the sidewalk periodically, there isn’t much they can do. Often, temporarily cleared encampments or cited homeless people will return shortly after their interactions with police.
Perea repeatedly acknowledged the residents’ frustration but also reminded them about the focus of their complaints.
“What everyone has to remember is that what’s on the other side of this is people,” he said.
Dufty recommended calling the HOT hotline at (415) 734-4233 for immediate concerns about a homeless person’s well-being or about encampments.
Perea told residents to continue to call the non-emergency number where appropriate, and assured the community that officers do respond to non-emergency calls when they are not needed for more dangerous situations. He also suggested that the city might consider legislation to prohibit bicycle chop-shops from springing up on local sidewalks so police could take action against blatant bicycle thieves.
Charles Pitts, himself recently homeless, recommended that residents collaborate to ensure that homeless people are given the necessary tools to keep their area clean. He suggested figuring out how to supply sharps containers and trash bags or cans to prevent litter and biohazardous waste from ending up in the streets.
“You want the homeless to clean up, maybe y’all can organize something so that there’s bags and brooms, or something to sweep the trash into,” he said.
Pitts said he used to live in an SRO in inhospitable conditions and became homeless two weeks ago, though he has always been an activist and volunteer for the homeless.
“They can’t figure out how to come together to figure out a solution,” Pitts said after the meeting. “That’s a tragedy.”