Delancy Street Town Hall

The audience at the Seawall Lot 330 Navigation Center town hall. Source.

On April 3rd, representatives from the San Francisco Department of Homelessness, Public Works, and SFPD addressed community concerns over a hotly contested 200-bed Navigation Center at Seawall Lot 330 on the Embarcadero. The bitter classist vitriol that erupted at that meeting showcased the worst of San Francisco politics—even worse, though, it exemplified its status quo.

The room at the Delancey Street Foundation was tense, and packed with hundreds of people. At the entrance, attendees were, uh, “welcomed” by largely middle-aged white NIMBYs holding Safe Embarcadero signs. This group of Rincon Hill and South Beach homeowners has created a GoFundMe to raise money to hire a lawyer to stop the Navigation Center.

On the overhead projector, the Meeting Structure and Ground Rules slide said, “No cheering & jeering,” a request which was summarily ignored. Or, as one observer noted, “Totally normal rules to need to give to civilized, moral people.”

Kerry Abbott, a representative from the Department of Homelessness and Supporting Housing, explained the concept of Navigation Centers and provided an overview of the homeless situation in SF.

The Examiner reported that an attendee shook her head and said, "I don't believe that," when a representative explained the need for an Embarcadero Navigation Center. A March 29 survey counted 179 people sleeping or sitting outdoors in the neighborhood.

SAFE Navigation Centers are temporary residential facilities which offer support, storage, trauma-informed care and counseling services, and restorative justice policies in addition to beds. They’re open to partners and pets, storage of possessions, and allow people to set their own work, sleep, and meal schedules. This model improves on less comprehensive forms of temporary shelter that may feel like worse options for the homeless.

Seawall Lot 330 is owned by the Port of San Francisco. The City is aiming to open the SAFE Navigation Center there late Summer 2019 and keep it running for four years, though Mayor London Breed has said that’s up for negotiation. The crowd was generally in no mood for negotiating with her.

While Abbott, was speaking a middle-aged white woman yelled out asking why there aren't any navigation centers on the Westside. But even after the Navigation Center’s safety policies were outlined, there was no indication that this crowd’s prejudices would be mollified—to say nothing of what Westside neighbors might say in the same situation.

Kaki Marshall from the Department of Homelessness and Supporting Housing spoke next about the city’s Good Neighbor Policy. She showed a slide depicting the Safety Zone, where disproportionate 311 calls are coming from. The Primary Outreach Zone is where the city goes out to find people who may need shelter. The Good Neighbor Policy means the HSH sets up community meetings, takes calls from neighbors 24/7, provides on-site security. To eliminate lines around the Navigation Center, the center disallows walk-ins and has no set mealtimes.

The Good Neighbor Policy also means the city will actively discourage loitering outside, clean the area around the Navigation Center, make sure streets and sidewalks aren't blocked, and find and reach out to folks sleeping near the Navigation Center.

After opening the Mission District Navigation Center, the city claims 300 tents dwindled down to 70 nearby.

Rafael Alonzo, a representative from the SF Department of Public Works, explained some of the criteria used to choose sites for Navigation Centers. One of the biggest factors is size. SF doesn't have a ton of empty lots or affordable privately owned lots big enough for 175-225 beds. Several attendees near me continued to talk among themselves and ignored Alonzo’s presentations.

The crowd really ramped up when a representative from SFPD started explaining how police are going to be stepping up their patrols around the Center to twice per day, morning and afternoon, looking for loitering and illicit drug activity. The City also plans to provide more onsite security, which will interface directly with SFPD. The Police Department will also be setting up a special queue for 311 calls related to this Navigation Center.

The crowd jeered and laughed when the police officer said that crime decreased in the surrounding areas of three out of four Navigation Centers. It was clear that those with alleged public safety concerns were not interested in any factual information about public safety.

But things really got out of hand with a surprise visit from Mayor London Breed. Almost immediately, people opposed to the Navigation Center began loudly booing Breed for almost a minute. "Either you can let me talk or I can leave," Breed said over boos. A man next to me screamed, “LEAVE, GO HOME.”

"I am home,” Breed replied. “I grew up here. 

The man next to me continued.

"Go back and hang out with your boy."

"You're hiding. You're breaking the law."

"You don't care."

"Should have did it as a Supervisor."

"You always silence our voice."

Another man piped up, "You're not proposing. You already made up your mind."

"Do you want me to talk or not?" Breed tried to continue.

The crowd responded with a chorus of “No.”

"What I am trying to do is to address what we know is the biggest challenge we have in this city,” Breed said. “So on the one hand, you can't be upset about homelessness and then when I propose a real solution that's gonna make a difference, then you're upset about it!"

"It's always going to be a bad plan if it's in your neighborhood,” Breed continued. “I'm not going to be able to speak. But I am going to stay and listen to your comments. The least we could do is show respect to each other. It's not my goal to pit neighbor against neighbor."

The antis continued their shouting. "But you are!" And then they started booing loudly.

The irony of this all was that the Safe Embarcadero group had complained on social media over the preceding week that Mayor Breed hadn’t met with them in person.

“I've been here for about half an hour and can't believe the level of vitriol and entitlement in this room,” Cliff Bargar ‏tweeted. “The people opposed to this navigation center seemingly have no interest in learning the facts, just jeering.”

A concerned mother asked whether her children might be hurt by having to live near these people and the crowd went wild. At press time, there have been zero children hurt by people involved with Navigation Centers.

When the question of funding came up, a woman yelled, "Our tax money!" Other people chimed in about tax money. When they read a question about why it’s important to have a safe place for people to sleep antis yelled about censorship, saying "Next question!" The man next to me yelled about bronchitis and tuberculosis in the shelters. Jeff Kositsky, Director of the SF Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing answered a question about the Navigation Center’s potential impact on tourism by saying there are lots of homeless people already there. People yelled "Noooo" and the man next to me yelled, "We don't trust you Jeff. Go back to Oakland." 

A question came up about how many homeless are injection drug users. Kositsky said most of San Francisco’s injection drug users aren't homeless and that most people experiencing homelessness aren't drug users. He also pointed out that the average homeless person is more likely to be victim of crime than perpetrator. The crowd stays mostly silent at this point.

Then the crowd erupts again for question about opening shelters in other neighborhoods. "WHERE, WHERE??" And again for a question about the homeless people having to leave the Navigation Center to go do drugs. Around this point antis start walking out, screaming “Farce!” and chanting “We live here!” 

Navigation Center opponent Chris said, “I have a 22-month-old daughter, I have a wife, they cannot defend themselves if they were ever outside and anything were to happen."

Many said they were bullied by NIMBYs at the meeting. Gusty La Rue said, “I live in the neighborhood, have for about seven years, and was at the meeting to support the center. I was bullied and vilified by Safe Embarcadero’s childish and disruptive hate mob.”

Sam Moss is Executive Director of Mission Housing Development Corporation and one of the founding board members of YIMBY Action. “The Navigation Center is a proven mechanism for getting homeless and mentally ill humans off San Francisco’s streets,” Moss told Curbed SF. “We know that the city of San Francisco spends more dollars per human on the streets than it costs to house those humans. I’m sad that the privileged few staring down from their ivory towers in South Beach don’t believe they owe it to all of San Francisco to get out of the way.”

Most municipalities avoid this kind of shitshow by permitting new homes, whether market rate, below market rate, or homeless shelters, by-right. This means that any new homes that meet all zoning, etc. requirements gets a permit without endless meetings and bureaucracy.

The meeting showed why discretionary review processes, and California’s legal structure around development in general, is so toxic, divisive, and ultimately most hurtful to the most vulnerable constituents without a voice in our system.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the law under which Safe Embarcadero is hoping to sue, can be weaponized to attack any potential change as guilty until proven innocent. Should San Francisco’s homeless residents be denied shelter under the same legal framework used to fight against oil refineries? Should wealthy homeowners be empowered to greenwash their monopolistic racket?

“People who don’t go to these kind of meetings are often shocked, but it’s important to understand how typical this is,” YIMBY Action Executive Director Laura Foote said. “We can’t solve our statewide homeless crisis with this piecemeal approach, where neighborhood opposition can scuttle desperately needed shelter.”

State law must be reformed to provide emergency shelter and remove so many opportunities for leverage against it. Former Governor Jerry Brown once quipped, “CEQA reform is the Lord’s work, but the Lord’s work doesn’t always get done.” Fortunately, San Francisco’s State Sen. Scott Wiener has introduced Senate Bill 48 to remove discretionary review requirements for emergency shelter and allow them by-right. Find your legislator here and ask them to support it.

But for San Francisco’s homeless residents, relief can’t come soon enough from Sacramento. We as a City must stand up for them. The Port Commission is scheduled to vote on the lease on April 23rd. To make your opinion on the Center known, email DHSH@sfgov.org.

Cathy Reisenwitz writes about software for a living, sex on the side, and policy for fun. Her column “Unintended Consequences” appears regularly in the Bay City Beacon. She’s pro-sex, pro-feminism, and pro-market. Sign up for her newsletter and follow her on Twitter.

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