Some 40 nearby neighbors made it clear on Monday night that they are unhappy about plans for a temporary homeless shelter at the site of former McMillan Electric building at 26th and South Van Ness streets.

The lot is slated for 157 units of market-rate housing and the new Navigation Center would be a temporary use of the land.   

“We oppose a temporary facility for a Navigation Center on that site,” said Craig Weber, a resident of 25th and Shotwell streets, who last week began circulating a petition in an effort to thwart the project.

The group met at the Mexican restaurant Rincon Nayarit at 1500 South Van Ness Ave., across the street from the proposed shelter, to discuss their concerns.

“Recently I got the opportunity to invest in this business and I have put all my money into it,” said German Matias, who opened Rincon Nayarit some two months ago. “It’s so sad to see it falling apart. I see these homeless people fighting outside … in front of my children.”

Matias said that for months, a homeless encampment lining three sides of the empty lot at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. has been a problem for nearby neighbors. That encampment was swept away by city cleaning crews on Sunday afternoon and early Monday morning before San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and various city department heads visited the lot on Monday.

The idea of a temporary homeless shelter was part of a deal mediated between Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen and the developer, Lennar Multifamily Communities, which wants to build the 157 market rate units.

As part of the deal to allow that project to go forward, Lennar agreed to the shelter as well as leasing out some six trade shop spaces on the property at 50 percent below market rate rents, and a $1 million contribution to a cultural stabilization fund.

The developer previously agreed to make 25 percent of the housing units affordable.

“The situation is that we have encampments that are unsafe and unhealthy all over the Mission, including at 1515 South Van Ness, and the status quo is unacceptable,” said Ronen.

The proposed center would provide about 100 to 120 beds, and unlike the Mission’s existing Navigation Center at 1950 Mission St., the stays at 1515 South Van Ness would not be capped at 30 days.

Representatives from the offices of Ronen and the mayor referred to the proposed Navigation Center as a ‘pop-up’ shelter – meaning that its life at the site will be limited in accordance with Lennar’s construction plans.

“This would be a temporary space where we can kind of reset and get tents cleared out of the Mission, which is ground zero for the encampment problems in San Francisco,” said Ronen’s legislative aide, Carolina Morales.

Morales estimated that the center will operate for a maximum of nine months, but with approvals still pending, it could be open for less than that.

Peter Schellinger, the vice president of Lennar, confirmed that he intends construction for the housing development to break ground in January 2018.

“It would be a short time frame,” said Schellinger in reference to the proposed shelter, adding that Lennar has not initiated the permitting process for demolition, a process that usually takes six to nine months.

“The idea of a center is to have a place [for campers] to go temporarily as we are working on a more permanent site,” said Ronen, adding that she trying to secure another site in an “industrial area of the district” to turn into a permanent Navigation Center location.

The goal is to ultimately remove tents from the Mission by offering campers an alternative.

But many of those who attended Monday’s meeting voiced concern that the shelter, albeit temporary, could operate longer than nine months should Lennar face additional construction hurdles.

Residents of the Mission and Bernal Heights meet to rally opposition to a homeless shelter moving into their neighborhood. Photo by Laura Waxmann

“Temporary can be five years. In five years, that can affect the neighborhood a lot,” said a 40-year Bernal Heights resident who gave his name as Joe. “People that don’t have a stake in the neighborhood are going to be stationing themselves here.”

Several neighbors said they were worried that a homeless shelter would attract more homeless individuals to an area already impacted by tent encampments.

“My concern is if we accept these centers that we are attracting the homeless into our district and that to me is a problem,” said one attendee.

Neighbors discussed the effectiveness of the Navigation Center model. Unlike traditional shelters, Navigation Centers admit clients along with their significant others, pets and belongings. The model was originally designed to house the homeless for extended periods until they were connected to permanent housing.

One neighbor who attended Monday’s meeting said she works with housing the formerly homeless and attested to the the Navigation Center’s success in addressing the city’s homeless crisis.

“Navigation Centers are skill-building learning centers where folks can get off the street and start learning to live,” said the woman. “When centers are put in they are put in a planned place where encampments have started in order to start housing those people. It works because those folks are actually a community.”

But another Mission resident who said she lives a block away from the Navigation Center at 1950 Mission St. testified tearfully that the center’s presence in her neighborhood has had a drastic effect on her quality of life.

“I walk everyday with my daughter down the street,” she said. “I’ve been harassed, physically assaulted and my house has been broken into. I’m not a monster, I know when people are suffering, it’s horrible. But it’s also breaking up the communities where these centers are put. It’s a wound that festers and affects everybody.”

But not all of the meeting’s attendees opposed the idea of a temporary shelter.

Tom Temprano, who lives and runs a business in the area, said the center would be staffed 24 hours a day.

“We can’t walk on the sidewalks here and we can’t get into our doorways,” he said of the current situation. “If we get a Navigation Center in there, it’s getting people off the sidewalks.“

Another woman, who lives directly across the street from the proposed shelter, pleaded for more compassion.

“I know it’s not comfortable having people living out their lives on the sidewalk. But they were like you and me,” the woman said. “I don’t think a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude is going to help that situation.”

Ronen said she plans to hold another community meeting once ongoing discussions determining the Navigation Center’s feasibility and budget have concluded.

At 1950 Mission St., the 75-bed Navigation center is currently operating at a $2.6 million annual budget, while a 95-bed Navigation Center at Civic Center is costing the city $3 million annually, according to Deirdre Hussey, a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office.

Although Hussey declined to comment how much 1515 South Van Ness’ build out and operation as a homeless shelter would cost the city, she confirmed the mayor’s support for Ronen’s initiative to address encampments in the district.
“The mayor understands that the tents in the Mission is an issue that people are concerned about [and] he is very happy to be working with Supervisor Ronen to come up with solutions to clear some of those tents,” Hussey, adding that with the community’s support, the Navigation center could open in “four to eight weeks, after we get possession [of the building] from Lennar.”