High Hopes for Navigation Centers Despite Lack of Housing

By researching Navigation Centers, shelters which provide case management and other services to homeless people, and reflecting  upon the positions of various journalists, members of City administration, and local politicians, I learned good and bad news. The good news is that, yes, we are making progress in finding ways to fight homelessness. The bad news is that this progress is so slow that the social pathology of homelessness may lead to the erosion of universal ethical values, causing serious lasting damage our  society. 

As discussed in a previous issue of the Street Sheet, mass homelessness is a relatively recent social phenomena, which became a reality of the American life only about thirty years ago for the second time in history after the Great Depression. Up until the 20th century, almost every person belonged to an extended family and a few  groups, such as religious congregations, ethnic communities, membership clubs, professional guilds or societies that supported people in need. Most of these organizations required serious commitments and exercised a certain degree of control over members, which was the main reason why such groups played a lesser and lesser social role from the beginning of 20th century until they almost disappeared. As we have already mentioned, the first time mass homelessness became a reality of life was during the period of the Great Depression. It made such a profound impact on society that the country adopted a number of measures to avoid a possible repetition of this scenario in the future. These mechanisms protecting society from homelessness — which included social services programs and millions in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development — existed for about a half of the century until they were dismantled by the Reagan administration under the misconception that people wanted to live on the street.

Considering the fact that for the last thirty years most of the time homelessness was either denied as a problem or addressed by punitive measures, which resulted in an ever-increasing amount of people on the street, the current absence of strategy for dealing with this social disaster is hardly surprising. San Francisco’s Navigation Centers’ attempt of social rehabilitation project was a bold and innovative social experiment, and  generated interest in many other cities.

The first Navigation Center was opened in the Mission in March 2015. It became the first complex of its kind in the nation where homeless individuals were provided with accommodations and intensive case management while they were routed to employment services and other social programs. In June 2016, legislation calling for the City to open six Navigation Centers within two years was passed. A second center was established on the site of a residential hotel on Mid-Market. Plans for two more — one in Dogpatch, another in South of Market — are underway.

For many homeless people, like Lady Bee, a tiny blonde girl in her late twenties, the Navigation Center is the first program that treats them with respect and outlines a way out of their misery. Not only does the Navigation Center provide case management and housing services along with accommodations, but it also focuses on treating homeless people as human beings, rather than as broken bodies in need of a mechanical fix. Indeed, the Navigation Center’s shelter permits “the three P’s”: partners (whom are able to sleep next to one another and can push their beds together), pets and possessions.

When I fell out of the employment market due to a health situation, but did not yet have disability benefits and needed a place to stay, the shelters with their policies of curfews and other pointless attempts to introduce military discipline made this option unacceptable. The shelters’ regulations conflicted with my studies, volunteering and other projects which, apparently, in the mind of certain politicians, somebody unable to rent should not have.

“For me, shelter never was an option,” says Lady Bee, “simply because I couldn’t stay there with my partner. The Navigation Center came as an escape and a way to housing. For a young woman, it is almost impossible to be on the street alone. There is no privacy there on the street. Some people just force their presence on others. The only place I was able to be with myself was the public library, but it is not always open and not always convenient. I never saw Andrew as an ideal partner, but he made my street existence tolerable. We are too different, and we constantly fought, but we also loved and respected each other which I think is the most important. Besides that, Andrew showed me many things which I wouldn’t know otherwise.”

After living for three months in Navigation Center, Lady Bee and her partner decided to get separate housing, but are close friends. Now Lady Bee works for several hours on two part-time jobs which are not the positions she was dreaming of, but allow her to make the ends meet.

Bilal Ali,  another graduate of the Navigation Center program, works for a nonprofit and is happy doing his job of helping other people in dire straits. Bilal is a successful, accomplished person, and he is thankful to the Navigation Center for playing a part in his success. One thing Bilal regrets is that new clients of the Navigation Centers will no longer have the same opportunity he did.

“I appreciate the nice, warm staff of the Center which always made us feel welcome, he says. “Together with the showers, laundry and 24-hour food on demand, (it) created a special climate which helped us a lot. I also benefited from intensive case management which prepared me for housing, but now it is no longer there. Shelters already have 1000 people on the waiting list, and now they also will need to accommodate clients of the Navigation Centers. Besides that, for many people who cannot go to the shelters, staying in Navigation Centers will not make shelters more acceptable, so what will happen to them? Will (they) end up being on the street again? The Navigation Center was not a perfect solution, and they were not open for all. For example, they didn’t provide accommodations for people with particular disabilities and people with particular health problems. But they were also helping a lot of people, which they may not being able to do now without intensive case management. That is not a solution at all.”

However imperfect solutions the Navigation Centers are, finding sites beyond the two existing centers and two proposed centers might prove difficult. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing estimates that such facilities are budgeted at almost $3 million per site, and last November, San Francisco voters rejected a sales tax that would have generated $50 million, for homeless-related projects through the 2017 fiscal year.

Uncertainty surrounding the Navigation Centers could hardly be found unexpected considering the lack of a system and game plan. With different decisionmakers having completely different visions on how to approach homelessness, the role of the Navigation Center is naturally unclear. There is no clear definition around who may be eligible for Navigation Center services and why, and there are no clear treatment plans or goals to achieve for those who are accepted into the program. As a result, the Navigation Centers have become objects of critique for the unfair practices like preferential provision of housing to its clients, bypassing the regular wait list that is mandatory for everybody else. Supposedly, Navigation Center clients should more prepared to be housed than any other homeless person, but again, there are no clear definitions who should be housed first and why.

Recently, it was decided that Navigation Center clients will not get preferential access to housing. Many in the city were unhappy that almost all the new housing opportunities only went to navigation clients, while other folks — who were in grave need and staying in shelters or elsewhere on the streets — did not have the same priority to housing. Gaining access to the navigation centers was very political, for example, those camped near the site of the Super Bowl party got priority for navigation center, skipped the line and then got housing. Many believe these decisions should be based on the acuity of the person on the streets instead. Therefore, a decision was made that navigation center clients will still get intensive housing preparation support, but will compete for housing with homeless people outside of the navigation centers. This decision, in spite of being more fair, does kill the initial idea of a program as an automatic exit into housing, it will simply become another shelter — just with fewer restrictions. The term of stay in a Navigation Center is defined as three months.

As a war veteran, I compare the extremes of street life with the extremes of war, and I find it in many ways comparable. We know that the recovery from the trauma of war is a lifelong process, and at the same time, we expect recovery from living on the streets to happen overnight. I think that every person on the street would agree that San Francisco can be proud of being a cradle of the idea of Navigation Centers, because of its original intention of transitioning homeless people into housing. However, the practicality and feasibility of that can only be realized if the city invests deeply into creating housing for all homeless people, with Navigation Centers no longer being able to guarantee housing for people. Now, it is just another shelter,  not a solution to homelessness.

Summing up the ideas of all the people with whom I talked about Navigation Centers, I must say that it is definitely seen as step in right direction and a successful experiment providing a lot of materials for study. Scrupulous study of this  pilot program is necessary—the City’s Controller’s Office has been releasing a series of reports over the last year—to define who should be considered clients of Navigation Centers, the goal of the centers, and how to help others outside the centers.