On a rainy evening in late March, Supervisor Matt Haney was walking through the Tenderloin when he lost his way. He slipped and slammed the back of his head into the slick pavement.

The first person to respond was a homeless man sitting out the downpour in a cardboard shelter. He helped the dazed and bleeding supervisor out of the rain and offered him a napkin and a bottle of whiskey. Haney gladly accepted both.

The two men leaned up against a wall and watched the rain fall; the homeless man put his arm around his supervisor and told him he’d look out for him.

Now, Haney wants to return the favor. But he’s found the process is not unlike banging your head into the pavement.

A man who called himself Crimewave said he had already checked into the new Mission District Navigation Center in June 2017. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

When we met in his City Hall office last week, Haney seemed somewhat fatigued. He’d already appeared at more than a dozen separate meetings regarding the proposed Navigation Center on the waterfront, and would, that night, be at another. There have been more since. These have not been civil nor sedate affairs.

In the era of the Embarcadero Freeway, the central waterfront was a realm of dying industry, flophouses, and crime. Now it’s a place for luxury condos and dog-walkers in yoga pants. The notion of dropping a homeless navigation center here has been received as well as suggestions of opening a rendering plant or a training facility for Somali pirates.

Haney has been accused of being anti-family and anti-child. He has been callously accused of facilitating crime and blight in the neighborhood and angrily threatened with a recall (good luck with that). Navigation Center opponents, in short, have behaved like the villains in a movie where the hero is a dog — and everybody looks more sensible standing next to them.

To wit, the disrespectful reception waterfront residents gave to Mayor London Breed was so over-the-top that one could be forgiven for forgetting that she campaigned against homeless measure Proposition C with disingenuous arguments, and that the unhoused are still being relieved of their tents by police during torrential rainstorms.

Haney, as his close ally Supervisor Hillary Ronen did before him in the Mission, is fighting for a homeless shelter in his own district, perhaps against his own political well-being. Like Ronen, he’s sticking out his neck and will have to own the results, come what may (and, in the Mission, far from fears about crime or blight or reduced property value, the results appeared to be rather good.).  

If Haney has his way, all of his colleagues will soon be familiar with this process. He’s introduced legislation mandating a navigation center in every supervisorial district.

Is this the decent thing to do? Yes. Is it good politics, especially among D6 constituents frustrated that they’re saddled with the majority of the city’s burden? Yes. But is this the best solution for the people in question — the homeless? That’s harder to say. Is this practical? Is this politically feasible? And has this city’s elected leadership been honest about what a navigation center is — and what it is not?

Not really.

San Francisco is in an odd position. It needs to build more navigation centers. And it also needs to stop monomaniacally focusing on navigation centers.

Bevan Dufty cleans the 16th Street BART Plaza. Photo by Susie Neilson.

The city’s first proto-Navigation Center was born of fire. A blaze erupted at a homeless encampment at 5th and King in 2012; fires burned on both sides of the roadway and cars and trams rolled through the smoke like a scene out of some dystopian future.

Being engulfed in flames diminishes one’s leverage, and the 30-odd residents of the shantytown agreed to then-homeless czar Bevan Dufty’s plan to move them into a nearby church basement and work to house them permanently (on the day of the planned move, a cop came by with three chronic homeless people and dropped them into the encampment so they could be housed, too. “It was the most entrepreneurial thing I’d ever seen,” recalls Dufty.).

Of those 30 people, Dufty says 29 were housed (one, who had warrants, was jailed and later entered a treatment program).

In 2015, the city opened up its first official Navigation Center, at 1950 Mission St. It was small, 75 people tops, and the rules were ostensibly simple: “My mantra was, you’re only gonna leave if you’re housed or if you become violent,” recalls Dufty. There was a 75-year-old grandmotherly Filipina woman who came in with nine shopping carts she’d been keeping on the 16th Street BART Plaza. She was sweet and charming and she played with dolls and would tell you about her sister, who was a mermaid.

Responsibly placing someone like that in housing is a challenge. As it is for undocumented people, people who’ve slipped off of General Assistance, people who have outstanding warrants in other states, and others. This woman was at the Navigation Center for a year.

Today, that would be difficult. In 2016, time limits were imposed at navigation centers and their raison d’être was unsubtly transmuted from housing each and every individual who walked in the gate to rapidly vacuuming up burgeoning encampments (the term “Navigation Center,” which poll tested at 90 percent positive, didn’t change). A 2017 San Francisco Public Press analysis found the bulk of homeless people “housed” out of navigation centers had accepted one-way bus tickets out of town via the Homeward Bound program.

And that’s still the case. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (DHSH) today claims a shade more than half of those who pass through Navigation Centers exit homelessness — but not quite one in six land in permanent housing. Far more are taking the bus. (To be fair, many of the navigation center’s guests only stay there a night or two prior to their bus journey and never intended anything more).

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build navigation centers. It just means the city needs to be more forthright about what it hopes to accomplish. Jeff Kositsky, the head of the city’s homeless department, says that “every night that someone doesn’t sleep outside is a success.” Navigation centers, famously, meet people where they’re at. You can bring in your pets, your spouse, your possessions. You’re not thrown out for minor transgressions (you can go around the corner and get high). You can eat when you like and head out at night to recycle cans. You can’t do any of these things at a shelter, and lots of homeless people won’t go to one.  

“Many studies show that when people come inside, their cortisol levels will drop — their stress levels go down,” Kositsky continues. “They get healthier. They gain weight. They’re far more likely to have access to a doctor. Even though it may not result in permanent housing, it’s still an important service to provide to people.”

And yet, if we’re putting our effort and resources into alleviating people’s short-term suffering, if we’re treating the symptoms of homelessness and not its root cause — a dearth of housing —  hasn’t this city’s homeless strategy basically become the equivalent of palliative care?

Kositsky disagrees with this comparison. But other career homeless workers we spoke to did not. Building navigation centers, they tell us, is an interim step until we can actually provide more housing. It’s the best we can do right now. And while it no longer resembles Dufty’s housing-or-bust mantra, he’s in favor of building more navigation centers anyway. The more navigation centers you build, he says, the more pressure it puts on the mayor and the supes to expand housing resources. And, fundamentally, it’s far cheaper and more humane to administer to people in shelters than on the street.

There’s a lot of great things that a navigation center can do, but our city’s elected leaders have always overpromised their capacity and repurposed them so much to meet politically pressing needs that “navigation” is no longer their primary goal.

But that seems typical of this city’s approach to homelessness writ large; we tend to focus on one element of the problem to the detriment of all others — then change course, and do that again.

So, we need navigation centers. We need housing. But we need more. We need things elected officials don’t necessarily call for or point to: We need outreach; we need to stabilize the marginally housed; we need to address the broken mental health system. We need to further refine the methods we use to deliver services and even to organize them. Some of this is getting done, but it’s a struggle.

It can, at times, feel like banging your head into the pavement.

But that’s not nearly as bad as living on the pavement.