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

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.”

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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16 Comments

  1. Joe,

    How about more on the “ever-widening series of problems” in your article?

    What are the “good practices, and they need to be institutionalized”?

  2. Navigation Centers have been, as the humble writer states, elevated to the status of beneficial divine intervention, assailable only at the risk of heresy, kinda like Vision Zero.

    Never mind that their numbers will never host more than 1/4 of SF homeless people, given the constraints on site acquisition. But NCs offer government the opportunity to put forth optics that communicate that it is coming together to do something, anything. And any questioning of any of that is cast as NIMBY heresy.

    The Embarcadero center was an exercise in virtue signalling where the entirety of support to end homelessness was conditioned on approving a few score beds under the bridge.

    Somehow, the Embarcadero, home to traffic, commuters, intense commercial activity and east side urban issues, was cast in the role of Pacific Heights, Seacliff or St. Francis Wood, bucolic leafy pricey neighborhoods without affordable housing, shelters or poverty social services that count politically and are not subject to any urban stresses.

    Once established as the target, the entirety of outrage was directed eastward, leaving the real wealthy neighborhoods insulated from any undesirables, chuckling at the gullibility of them all.

    The political dynamic has been One Big Game of Keep Away, where the “conservative C,” districts 2, 7, 3, 1, 4 and 11 in order of importance, supports minimal commercial activity and hardly any development yet gets the benefit of tax revenues produced by businesses in D6, 9, 10 and the FD of 3.

    Had Haney had any exposure to SF politics prior to running for the Board, he might have known this. But he has had to learn on the job. The problem, of course, is that damn 8-3 built in support for throwing D6, 9 and 10 to the devices of the market along with a political push to contain urban problems there.

    I would like to see devolution where the County of San Francisco was divided into two municipalities: Golden Gate and Yerba Buena. Let’s see how the fancy neighborhoods hold it together without commercial and new condo tax revenues from the east side.

    This is almost like the national divide writ small, between high tax, high regulation, high wage, high profit net tax contributor liberal/progressive blue states and the low tax, low regulation, low wage, low profit net tax taker libertarian welfare red states.

    1. Early in your comment you hit it – the City will never be able to house more than 25% of the “homeless”.

      We can’t build enough housing for starters (how about we take the tax money going to the large number of “non-profit” service groups and use those funds for…housing?).

      There’s apparently a large part of the “homeless” population that doesn’t want the housing that our government can offer (housing that has rules attached).

      If you can offer a better idea than Navigation Centers please do so.

      1. The purpose of the poverty nonprofits is to outsource government function to private corporations as a way to get around civil service ethics restrictions on political patronage.

        The “moderates” use public disgust with homelessness as fodder for successive ballot measures designed to divide the electorate from whichever conservative candidate they’re teeing up.

        The incentives are there to not make headway on actually solving homelessness. At this rate it would take 20+ years, all else remaining static. My read is that they are pushing forward on gentrification and expect for the poor residents who might have been the most likely to become homeless to just die off, taking the problem with them. It is cheaper to slow walk it and milk it politically and for patronage.

        I do not get paid to work up a comprehensive set of policies on homelessness nor do I want to. I can do the math on what is being proposed and see that we’re being sold a bill of goods by all involved. Either “progressives” make with visible progress on solutions or Care Not Cash is going to look like a garden party.

    2. Marcos,

      Declare a state of emergency.

      Freeze all development contracts on Treasure Island.
      tes
      Build those huge tents (Walter Wong put several
      of them side by side and accommodated 4,000 for
      the Gonzalez blast in 2002) …

      You could easily have space with amenities inside a month.

      Hire Tina Turner as the Mayor and Bruce Willis as Sheriff.

      It would work.

      Like that close of Niners game Saturday?

      Same as their last 3 games.

      Gonna have to resurrect and reapply Duane Kuiper’s 2010 line …

      “Torture, torture, torture!!

      h.

  3. Build it and they will come! I’m SLM for spreading the navigation centers around town. It’s about time the rest of the city shared our pain, rather than just voting “progressive” and then leaving us to deal with the consequences.

    Homeless can live within the city and commute downtown like the rest of us.

  4. The city’s “bus ticket home” program is our most successful yet. Let’s expand it! But if we can provide free Muni passes I’m also for building these nav centers in the Sunset, Richmond, Marina, etc.

  5. Heyyy, I see my stolen tool bag and ratchet tie-down straps in the picture with that guy! Can I go to the navigation center to pick them up from him??

  6. Love the photo caption – navigation center resident “who calls himself Crimewave…”

    Sounds about right.

  7. Of interest is that “Crimewave” seems to fit the profile of an ambulatory white working age male.
    Encountered in seemingly disproportionate numbers among our un-housed population.

    People ride death trains and cross death deserts, arrive without financial or linguistic resources and somehow survive in Bay Are environs.
    Within most every construction site passed the lingua franca is Spanish.
    Young Salvadorean men dance about roof tops with total disregard of altitude or gravity.
    And yeah – some go into the business of medicating the strung out.

    But have yet to see any of the above described minorities taking a duece in front of the neighbor’s front door,
    Heck – even the infamous Safeway pooper looked mighty pale with a man-bun to boot!

    Being a white male in America is 90% of the game.
    The other 10% is showing up on time.

    In the real world many struggle with mental illness and substance issues yet they valiantly deal with it and show up for work.

    Yet our un-housed ambulatory white working age male population must be provided housing and services for they are incapable of self support.

    I guess this is the new age White Man’s Burden – lolling about waiting for handouts.

    1. I traverse large swaths of this city’s sidewalks daily and encounter the homeless population en masse. Many of those living on our streets are people of color and Spanish-speaking immigrants. Poverty impacts these populations at higher levels for the reason you stated above: Being a white male provides a lot of insulation against the harshness of life.

      Contrary to your assertion, a lot of mentally ill people can’t just “push through” mental illness in order to work. Mental illness isn’t something that hardworking people can just deal with by working hard. And there are mentally ill people in every community on this globe, many of whom live as societal outcasts and suffer poverty and additional physiological illness due to untrue myths about mental illness like the one you mention above.

      Just because someone has an able body doesn’t mean they have an “able” mind… And further vilifying those living on the street with mental illness doesn’t help anyone, housed or otherwise.

  8. So just to be clear: we’re celebrating the fact that Embarcadero was selected at least partially to stick it to the residents who live there (as Breed and Co admit), but were crying over the idea that Haney’s legislation is political? Gotta love the SF do-gooders.

  9. I would like to know the social services perspective on this legislation.

    Is it good policy? IIRC there are districts with extremely low counts of those who would use a nav center. Does that mean they’ll travel from district 6 all the way across the city? Is there a precedent for this type of intra city homeless migration?

  10. I luv how Peskin got his NC points by nominating a site in the TenderNob – the very edge of D-3. The THDs will be able to Rest In Peace.

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