By TJ Johnston
Judging by the raucous community meeting about the proposed navigation center by The Embarcadero, it’s safe to assume nobody was satisfied.
The City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing hosted the meeting on April 3 at the Delancey Street Foundation, less than a four-minute walk from the potential site on Port of San Francisco-owned property at Seawall Lot 330.
And the audience was divided into two camps as distinct as the separate GoFundMe campaigns related to the would-be shelter.
On one side, there were opponents of the shelter who are housed in adjacent, affluent neighborhoods along The Embarcadero, most of whom wore orange stickers that read “Safe Embarcadero.” Representing the other side were shelter proponents who carried pink paper signs that read “Hate has no home here.” The supporters held the signs whenever opponents booed and jeered during the City’s presentation.
On April 23, the Port Commission will decide whether to allow a temporary structure that would accommodate around 200 homeless San Franciscans in what is being billed as a “SAFE Navigation Center.” If the commission approves, it would be the fifth active low-threshold shelter with case management and supportive services.
Despite his initial reservations about the size of the center, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney said that unhoused people in the area would benefit from the amenities.
“This SAFE Navigation Center is an opportunity for us to address the urgent and growing challenge of homelessness in the Rincon Hill, South Beach and Mission Bay neighborhoods,” he said in a March 4 press release from Mayor London Breed, who is also urging the site to be opened. “We know that ending street homelessness requires us to build more shelter beds with high-quality wraparound services.”
But what’s different about this SAFE center — Breed’s acronym for “Shelter Access For Everyone” — from previous navigation centers is the proximity to high-income housing and tourist attractions. The visible homelessness in the area has already raised the hackles of luxury condo dwellers. The possibility of a facility lodging previously unsheltered people has prompted a GoFundMe campaign to hire Zacks, Freedman & Patterson PC, a law firm that describes itself as “the voice of Bay Area property owners.” So far, that campaign has raised over $100,000, while a competing GoFundMe by former Google publicist William Fitzgerald is closing in on $175,000 (Disclosure: Funds will be donated to the Coalition on Homelessness, a homeless advocacy organization that publishes Street Sheet).
The tone of the event was such that written questions to City officials had to be submitted on index cards, and some of these were pointed — and reinforced a frame of visible homelessness as a threat to the safety of housed residents. One was “how will my son be safe?” Another said, “how will we make sure there aren’t drugs?” Surprisingly, one asked without any apparent irony, “why is it important for these (homeless) people to have a place to sleep?”
(To provide context for that last question, a woman who described herself as formerly homeless said the waitlist for a 90-day shelter reservation has over 1,400 people, citing a recent Street Sheet issue and the City’s 311 website.)
Shelter naysayers groaned during presentations of the shelter design, including landscaping, translucent roofing, noise-masking fabric, an outdoor garden and dog-run area.
Homeless advocates at the meeting were audibly put off when SFPD Lt. David Lazar, who commands the Healthy Streets Operation Center, told the audience there will be heavy police presence in the area. Already, placements to existing navigation centers are prompted by neighbors’ complaints about encampments.
Lazar’s unit takes the lead in camp sweeps and has been criticized for seizing tent dwellers’ possessions. Even when Lazar said that no connection of homelessness to increased crime existed, it didn’t seem to mollify anyone.
Just before the two-hour meeting ended, several opponents walked out en masse.