A temporary Navigation Center uniquely serving the Mission’s homeless population is set to open its doors on Monday and will come with bolstered police patrols near its location at 26th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, as well as a private security guard on site.
“We will have private security – and not make it a large police presence at the Navigation Center,” said Commander David Lazar, of the San Francisco Police Department’s Community Engagement Division. “We want people to be free to go and not be intimidated. We have a role as police officers to make sure people are safe.”
Randy Quezada, the spokesperson for city’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, confirmed that a security firm will be contracted by the San Vincent De Paul Society, the nonprofit that will manage the center. The details, including the name of the firm, have not yet been released.
A guard and the center’s staff will be on site at all hours, said Quezada. In a community meeting on the matter in early May, Mission Supervisor Hillary Ronen and other city department heads involved in the center’s build-out and operations promised a dedicated police patrol for the area.
There will also be more police officers present in the neighborhood.
“We are going to increase police visibility and presence within a few blocks around the site,” said Lazar. At least one officer deployed with Mission Station currently patrols the area, he said.
“We will have a more concentrated effort within a four to six block radius [of 1515 South Van Ness], all throughout the day, to make sure we are present and around,” said Lazar, but declined to say how many officers will be patrolling the area, calling it instead, “Just a slight increase.”
The new Navigation Center is a joint effort of various city departments – including the San Francisco Police Department, Public Works and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing – to address homelessness in the district.
“It’s about geography,” said Quezada, adding that clients of the 120-bed shelter will be admitted only if they currently stay in the area stretching from Division to Cesar Chavez streets, and from Potrero Avenue to Valencia Street. Clients will be allowed to stay for 30 to 60 days with some flexibility, he said.
A homeless count released last week placed the number of homeless residents in the Mission at 510 – up from 410 in 2015. Homeless-related calls for service in the district have increased, a reflection of the city’s housed residents’ peaking frustrations with the visible and often heartbreaking reality of homelessness on their doorsteps.
The Mission’s once sprawling tent encampments have long been deemed “unsafe and inhumane” by Ronen and other city leaders. Since last August some of the large scale encampments have been broken up or moved, but few have vanished entirely.
Without adequate permanent supportive housing or shelter space – a citywide adult shelter wait list has some 1,100 individuals – many of those removed from resolved encampments simply move a few blocks away.
“The city cleared Division Street [last March], then people went into residential areas. The [neighbors’] complaints increased 40-60 percent, then they [responded] sweeps and encampment resolutions and folks were then pushed into more industrial areas,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights advocate for the Coalition on Homelessness.
“Lately what we are seeing now is sweeps there too. Nothing is being accomplished it’s making things worse,” she added.
The new Navigation Center at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. will add 120 beds to the Mission. Along with the city’s first Navigation Center, a 75-bed Center at 1950 Mission St., is one way to address the homeless residents who move from block to block and to connect the homeless to city services, said Quezada.
“It’s not permanent housing, it’s not long term transitional. Its a Navigation Center, a way to plug people into broader system and help people figure out their journey out of homelessness,” said Quezada.
The new Navigation Center will operate for six to nine months and was spearheaded by Ronen in an effort to provide immediate relief for the proliferation of tent encampments in the neighborhood.
But since its planning stages, it has split neighbors along the lines of compassion and opposition – citing safety concerns, a group of neighbors protested its construction.
“There is a lot of neighborhood concern around loitering – There are perceptions of the neighborhood overnight becoming what the neighborhood is like around 16th and Mission. It’s a different place,” said Quezada, referring to an existing Navigation Center at 16th and Mission streets. “We actively discourage loitering in front of the facility. “
In past months the department heads have met to address operational and security concerns. Talk of a fixed police post on the site of the new center earlier this week stirred advocates for the homeless, who decried an enforcement-heavy approach to address homelessness in the area.
“There’s always the concern when the response to homelessness is law enforcement,” said Cutler. “They are putting officers in a role they shouldn’t be in. We have a housing and health crisis and responding with law environment makes no sense.”
But Quezada said that the department’s social workers will be at the forefront of moving homeless campers off the streets and into the shelter.
“We always lead with social services. But we do have an interest in keeping streets clean and healthy,” he said. “We are trying to get people off the streets and to a better life, that’s our goal. The police department shares our goal. The police department has other goals around public safety and we support them.”
With the temporary center’s limited operation, the question remains of what happens once the clients’ stays end.
“A huge concern is .. the police enforcement for those people [who] go back to the street after nine months,” said Cutler.