At an emotional community debate Monday night some 200 Mission residents squared off with top city officials and one another over the burdens and benefits that a temporary homeless shelter will bring to a neighborhood severely impacted by tent encampments.
At issue is the city’s plan to place a Navigation Center – a low-barrier homeless shelter that offers its clients on-site access to supportive services – in a vacant lot and electrical building at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. The property will then be developed into mixed-use housing.
“People are stepping over homeless people, they are finding needles, this Navigation Center is only going to create a bigger problem because it is not a solution, it is only a patch on the problem,” said one nearby resident.
But those who spoke in support for the temporary homeless shelter at a Monday night’s public hearing, said any solution is better than the status quo.
“The situation in the Mission is out of control. The tent encampment on South Van Ness, on my corner, is out of control,” said Navigation Center supporter Tom Temprano, a trustee of San Francisco City College who lives half a block away from the proposed shelter and also runs a business in the area. “I disagree that the solution to solving this problem is to do nothing.”
Temprano addressed city leaders at the meeting including Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen and the heads of the San Francisco Police Department, Public Works and the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing: “I want you to solve this problem.”
“If it’s a band-aid, I’ll take a band-aid over nothing and making it worse,” he said.
Those who attended the meeting hoping to sway city officials to house the homeless elsewhere in the city, may have left disappointed.
“The decision has been made,“ said Ronen, adding that the Navigation Center will likely be up and running by June 1 and it will be open from six to nine months. Last month, Ronen struck a deal with the site’s developer, Lennar Multifamily Communities, to allow city use of the space as a homeless shelter until construction permits for the 157-unit housing project are finalized.
Police and fire officials stood by on Monday to manage a crowd that lined the sidewalk outside of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts at 2826 Mission St., which hosted the public forum.
Inside, the center’s auditorium was filled well beyond its 180-person capacity – dozens who were turned away at the door were promised a second meeting in the coming weeks by the district’s supervisor, Hillary Ronen, who called for the meeting.
Opponents who loosely organized as a neighborhood group under the slogan “Protect the Mission” came bearing posters that read the “Mission is not a dumping ground.”
The Mission District is already home to the city’s first Navigation Center at 1950 Mission St., which some critics have blamed for a perceived increase in crime and loitering outside of its doors. With the addition of a second shelter on South Van Ness Ave., a number of them voiced concerns that the neighborhood is unfairly forced to bear the brunt of the city’s “homeless problem.”
“Why is this Navigation Center not in the Marina District?” said one speaker who added that she is not opposed to the center per se, but opposes its location. “I walk in the Marina, I walk in the Richmond and everything is clean – no homeless [people]. ”
Ronen defended the Navigation Center and said the temporary shelter is only the beginning of her advocacy for economic equity in her district.
“Does temporary solve the problem? No, but we have a life and death public health emergency on the streets right now,” said Ronen. “I need to do something right now. I needed to do something a month ago.”
Despite the visible opposition, a majority of those who snagged a seat inside of the auditorium advocated for the Navigation Center. All sides, including the city officials present, agreed that the homeless crisis is in part a by-product of the city’s growing wealth gap that is becoming increasingly visible on the city’s streets.
“The dumping of homeless people in the Mission –on Division Street, for Super Bowl City…while you guys were building high rise buildings – has caused this problem,” said a critic of the Navigation Center.
Ronen said that the shelter’s proposed location is a direct result of the need in the area. Of the some 300 people living without a home in the MIssion, an estimated 150 have found shelter in tent encampments of varying sizes throughout the Mission.
With only 8 percent of the city’s shelter beds located in the Mission, the addition of a second Navigation Center – albeit a temporary one – is precisely what is needed to decrease the number of visible tents, and ultimately the dozens of people currently living on the neighborhood’s streets, said Ronen.
Still, Some worried that the temporary shelter could become permanent, should the developers face hurdles in their construction timeline.
“There is no secret plan to form a permanent Navigation Center at this site,” said Ronen.
In an effort to assure the safety of the Navigation Center’s clients and the surrounding residents during this time, a minimum of six staffers would be at the site at all times, said Mohammed Nuru, director of Public Works.
Responding to neighbors’ concerns about loitering on the street in front of the shelter, Nuru said that what is currently an empty parking lot at 1515 South Van Ness will be designed as an outdoor space where clients may congregate.
Calling the proposal a “great opportunity for us to move in a different direction,” Nuru said that encampment sweeps administered by his department that relocate campers temporarily have been problematic.
“It’s a huge problem for our department,” he said. “A lot of resources are being spent.”
The San Francisco Police Department has also spent enormous resources in addressing the city’s homeless crisis. Last year, some 10,000 citations were issued to homeless individuals, some ending in incarceration, said Ronen.
Police Chief William Scott, who attended the meeting, told community members that his department’s role in addressing homelessness will be one of “collaboration” rather than enforcement.
“Part of our past attempt to address this problem has been through enforcement, and we have seen a very ineffective result,” he said, adding that all stakeholders involved in solving homelessness must proceed with “some common sense and compassion.”
Mateo, a 17-year-old proponent of the Navigation Center, agreed: “The homeless are there because an institution refuses to acknowledge their existence. Every place is rejecting them and refusing to help them out.”