Prior to the city making a splash by announcing plans to build a large homeless Navigation Center along the Embarcadero, San Francisco officials met in early 2019 to hash out the positives and negatives of this and other sites. 

And, for a number of reasons, the Embarcadero site won out. Most of the arguments in its favor were standard and logistical. But not all of them. 

“The people around the mayor liked it because of the optics of her taking on those neighbors,” a meeting participant says. Clearly, housing hundreds of homeless people in an increasingly upscale neighborhood was going to be controversial among nearby denizens of luxury high-rise condo towers. But, we’re told, a mayoral staffer replied, “I like that fight.” 

That was a good call. The condo dwellers’ subsequent behavior, as your humble narrator wrote at the time, resembled that of villains in a movie where the hero is a dog. 

They started a GoFundMe page to hire San Francisco’s most loathed eviction attorney to sue the city and prevent homeless people from being housed. They brought in “Master of Disaster” Sam Singer* to help direct a media narrative that a Navigation Center on the Embarcadero would be a nexus of filth, drug-use, and crime. They heckled Mayor London Breed at a community meeting; one ill-advised attendee made the loaded statement “Go home!” — to which Breed countered, “I am home! Born and raised in San Francisco!” 

Hot damn! That was a moment. Almost makes you forget Breed’s vehement opposition to Proposition C, during which she argued that we shouldn’t tax wealthy corporations to alleviate homelessness because her own government couldn’t be relied upon to accountably spend the money. It almost makes you forget that, during torrential rainstorms, the city is still relieving homeless people of their tents

Almost. 

Supervisor Matt Haney, in a “before” picture taken prior to the fight to secure the Embarcadero Navigation Center.

In short, the waterfront neighbors didn’t just play the part of NIMBY obstructionists to perfection, they redefined the parameters of the role.

With their lawsuit vanquished and the Embarcadero Navigation Center opening last week, its organized opponents can settle into their well-earned place in this city’s political septic tank; they have more than amply served their role of providing predictable histrionics and funding another acquisition for Singer’s tribal art collection.  

San Francisco isn’t always the best-run place. But, this time, everything went according to plan. 

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who oversees the Embarcadero — as well as the Tenderloin and SoMa — says he was a rather late addition to this plan. 

He told us he did not know about the meeting during which it was purportedly decided that a waterfront Navigation Center would provide both much-needed shelter for the city’s homeless population and a political boost provided by San Francisco’s most vituperative NIMBYs. Meeting participants confirm Haney was in the dark.  

When the mayor’s office contacted him, Haney says, “it wasn’t a, ‘what do you think?’ It was a, ‘This is gonna be in the Chronicle, do you want to give a quote?’” 

He did. He also went to at least 12 HOA meetings to push for the waterfront Navigation Center. Many of these gatherings resembled dramatic readings of Internet comment sections. This was not a fun time. During this period, Haney appeared weary and shell-shocked; he grew a beard befitting a man who sleeps in a Denny’s.  

Fast-forwarding to last week: On the very day Mayor Breed and others were gathered to open the shiny new Embarcadero Navigation Center, a Chronicle story — Amazing timing! Simply amazing! — trumpeted that, within hours, Haney would introduce legislation requiring a Navigation Center in every supervisorial district . 

Many of the questions posed to Breed and others weren’t about the Navigation Center they were opening, and the righteous fight that led to this glorious day — but Haney’s pending legislation. 

Well, that was awkward. Brutally awkward. And then Haney introduced his legislation. 

Jeff Koskitsky, the head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, can recite a litany of reasons Supervisor Matt Haney’s legislation is suboptimal. Photo by Julian Mark.

Jeff Kositsky, the director of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, doesn’t think much of this legislation. Neither does the mayor’s office. “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Kositsky says. “And if you’re a legislator, everything looks like an opportunity to legislate.” 

Granted, he hasn’t read the legislation yet. He says he’s busy. Kositsky and anyone else who cares to can read it here

In a nutshell, Haney’s legislation does two things: Only Districts 6, 9, and 10 have Navigation Centers, and it would mandate the other eight to open one in the not-too-distant future (including two within six months in districts presently without them); and — critically — it would also define just what a Navigation Center is. 

In the beginning, back in 2015, Navigation Centers were conceived of as low-capacity, high-intensity places where the city’s most chronically homeless could be ministered to in a relaxed, low-barrier atmosphere. There weren’t lots of difficult rules, they could bring in their pets and possessions, they could walk in and out like adults, and, barring abhorrent behavior, they wouldn’t be forced to relocate until they were placed in permanent housing. That’s what’s meant by “navigation.” 

That has changed, drastically, but the poll-tested title “Navigation Center” — 90 percent approval! — has not. The Embarcadero site is nearly three times as large as the 75-bed inaugural Navigation Center on Mission near 16th. And many of the guests here, as they call them, are only provided a spot for 30 days. The heavy majority of those satisfactorily housed via Navigation Center stays are doing so by hopping on a bus and going back to live elsewhere, with others. 

Haney’s legislation would eliminate that 30-day cap, tripling it off the bat. But it would also allow for indefinite stays for guests who are engaging in programs and services — programs and services that are also mandated in his legislation. So that pretty much means indefinite stays could be the norm. 

Kositsky, again, is not a fan. He says the decision-making processes  in here are arbitrary and political, the turnaround times are too fast, it would mandate the city to haphazardly erect centers in legislative districts instead of places homeless people actually are, and — a Kositsky mantra — it focuses on Navigation Centers to the exclusion of everything else this city does: housing, shelter, prevention, etc. 

It also employs “restrictive language on what a Navigation Center is,” which he feels ties his staff’s hands. 

But not everyone in the homeless service world feels that would be a bad thing. 

The inaugural Navigation Center courtyard, on Mission near 16th, December 2016. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

With nothing short of magical thinking, city leaders have put forth Navigation Centers as the solution for an ever-widening series of problems. In the process, the centers have been transmogrified into places where few people are truly “navigating” anywhere. 

San Francisco officials “have been so loosey-goosey with this,” says a veteran homeless service worker regarding the ever-malleable definition of what constitutes a Navigation Center. “There has been a willingness to make up definitions on the fly as it suits certain situations. That’s bad. There are good practices, and they need to be institutionalized.” 

Haney, for his part, wants clarity. “I want to see a lot more of these Navigation Centers and I want people to know what it means when these come into their neighborhoods,” he says. “I was adamant for the Embarcadero Navigation Center, but I learned a lot through that process. We have to be clear on what we’re doing and why, and how it’s successful.” 

“I want to make sure we’re certain and confident about the model and their success. And I am questioning whether we have that right now.” 

Haney’s fellow elected officials accuse him of being political here, and bemoan playing politics with the plight of the homeless. But they’re already doing that by even continuing to use the term “Navigation Centers.” 

Whether or not Haney’s legislation gets eight votes at the Board and a veto-proof majority — and that’s far from certain — these are conversations that are long past due. They will be messy. But that’s the mess the city made for itself when, for years, leaders overpromised what could be accomplished by Navigation Centers, and presented them as the end-all and be-all of homeless services, igniting a Navigation Center arms race — while, simultaneously, watering down the centers’ tangible benefits.

By all means, build these much-needed spaces for the homeless — but it’s time to be forthright about where they fit in the city’s long-term solutions for the homeless crisis, and just what we hope to accomplish with one, or six or 11. 

Matt Haney’s legislation may not be what San Francisco needs. But it’s certainly the legislation San Francisco deserves. 

*Singer subsequently emphasized that he signed on with the Navigation Center foes after the GoFundMe and belittling of Mayor Breed and, upon his hire, “I demanded they immediately cease any criticism of Mayor Breed, which I believe was unfounded, unfair, and wrong.”