Following a period of passionate public commentary, the Port Commission approved a new shelter at Seawall Lot 330.
After several months of contentious back and forth, the Port Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the construction of a homeless navigation center at Seawall Lot 330 near the Embarcadero. The 5-0 vote in favor of the 200-bed navigation center, despite bitter opposition from South Beach community members, was hailed by homeless advocates and elected officials such as District Six Supervisor Matt Haney and Mayor London Breed as a victory in the city’s effort to better serve the homeless population. But voices in opposition were reluctant to accept the result, and vowed to fight construction of the center through legal action.
The four hours of public commentary preceding the vote was representative of many of the themes and dynamics that characterize San Francisco’s push to provide shelter for its homeless population. Those in favor of the shelter argued that wealthy, privileged residents were using their money and resources to fight against a shelter that most people agree is necessary to tackle homelessness. In the process, the opposition was pedaling in misleading and even dangerous stereotypes about the homeless community. “These are humans who need to be housed," said Marnie Regan, a homeless service worker "This is about people dying, not about your goddamn property values."
Those opposed to the shelter, primarily residents of the well-to-do South Beach neighborhood, claimed that they were being miscast as callous and uncaring snobs. Emily Carnes, a South Beach resident of nine years, stated: “We’re not a neighborhood of hatred, we’re a very inclusive neighborhood.” Almost all agreed that more shelters were necessary, but the message among the opposition was unanimous: this isn’t the right place for a shelter. Many of the concerns voiced by residents about skyrocketing drug use, violent crime, and even a proliferation of sexual predators being “imported” into the neighborhood could only be described as hyperbolic. One resident claimed that the center would lead to a “huge epidemic of meth use” while another claimed the presence of the shelter would “terrorize residents.”
Mayor Breed first proposed Seawall Lot 330, an empty lot near the Bay Bridge, as a potential site for a new navigation center in early March as part of her push to expand the city’s shelter capacity by 1,000 beds by 2020. At 200 beds, it would be the largest shelter in the City, and the plan was welcomed by those who urge swift action to provide help to the city’s homeless population. But the proposal quickly ran into fierce opposition from members of the wealthy South Beach community, who mobilized a campaign against the shelter and started a GoFundMe that raised $100,000 to fight the shelter.
On Tuesday, many local residents complained that their concerns had been ignored and that, instead of working with the community, the city had steamrolled them. South Beach resident Judy Dundas stated, “It’s been nearly 100 percent opposition to this project, but nothing we have said has made any changes.” Mayor Breed’s administration had, in fact, made several substantial concessions to satisfy concerns over security and ensure a smoother relationship between the center and the South Beach community. The city will provide two additional full-time police officers to patrol the neighborhood seven days a week and will start off with only 130 beds, gradually transitioning up to 200. Most importantly, Mayor Breed changed the shelter’s lease to only two years, as opposed to the original four-year contract. The lease includes a renewal contingent on “a reduction in homelessness in the designated outreach zone, increased cleanliness and public safety services, and regular reports to the public about compliance with the good neighbor policy,” according to a press release from Mayor Breed’s office.
While Matt Haney, the Supervisor for District 6, praised the decision to move forward with construction of the Embarcadero center, he has also been critical of other districts who have yet to build any homeless shelters. To rectify that imbalance, Haney recently introduced legislation to require any Supervisor district with no current homeless shelters to build at least one within the next 30 months.
Homeless advocates applauded the vote and commended the Port Commission for taking a step towards fighting homelessness in the face of strident and vocal opposition. “I’m thrilled the Port Commission voted tonight to support the Nav Center at Seawall Lot 330,” said Corey Smith, Deputy Director of the Housing Action Coalition. “Building housing for our most vulnerable neighbors is a moral obligation our entire city must confront. While this is a good first step, there are too many people sleeping on the street every night and we will not achieve our goal until every single person is in safe, secure housing.”
Some local residents also rejected the NIMBY characterization of homeless individuals as dangerous and prone to violence. Carmen King, who spoke in favor of the center and lives next to a shelter in the Tenderloin, stated that seeing homeless individuals struggle to lift themselves up was “hard and heartbreaking” but “what it is not is unsafe. It has not made me less safe, it has made me more compassionate.” Laura Fingal-Surma, a resident of South Beach, penned a story on Medium titled “My kids go to daycare a short distance from the navigation center proposed for Seawall Lot 330. I support it.”, which states “The expansion of navigation center capacity will improve the experience of children and literally everyone else all over our city who encounter troubling street behavior on a daily basis.”
Even after the unanimous vote, Safe Embarcadero for All, the coalition mobilized in opposition to the shelter, vowed to fight on and take the battle to court. The coalition hired notorious land-use attorney Andrew Zacks, who plans to file an appeal against the center under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Sign up for the Bay City Beacon weekly newsletter! It's a free way of getting the best of political gossip and cutting-edge culture in your inbox every Friday.